Sometimes people surprise us. They catch us slightly off guard, and that’s what Sr Helen did on Monday. She slipped away before we had a chance to say goodbye. But she was always her own woman, and always did things her way.
Aunt Peggy chose a good time to die. She died in Easter week, the greatest week in the church’s year, the week we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, the greatest event in salvation history.
She fully subscribed to the message of today’s Gospel, of this Easter season. She knew in her bones that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. She sought to live his Way, to know his Truth, to experience his Life. She spent her long life honouring Jesus.
So, from Sr Helen’s point of view, she couldn’t have chosen a more opportune time in which to go to her heavenly home.
Today, as we celebrate this liturgy of farewell, our dominant mood is one of thanksgiving, gratitude for a long life lived well.
And she lived a long life and lived it well. She would have been 96 in June – an age she was sure she’d never reach. And for more than 90 of those years she was blessed with a sound mind and reasonable independence. A great blessing.
Peggy Ryan was born in Doon Co Limerick in June 1923, as the nascent Irish Free State struggled to recover from bitter civil war. Being a delicate child, it was recommended that a goat be purchased to nourish her with its milk. She had no great interest in school and wasn’t the most assiduous student – but still she passed the Leaving Cart without difficulty. Afterwards, helping out on the family farm, she was unsure what to do with her future, until she felt the Lord inviting her to try religious life. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1945, as Nazism was collapsing in Europe and tumult reigned across a broken world. She said that from the first day she entered, she knew she had made the right choice. She never doubted her vocation for a moment afterwards. Though lonely for home, she was happy, as happy as could be. She had found what she was looking for.
The young Sister of Mercy trained as a nurse and was assigned to St Finbar’s hospital, (still known to some as the Poor House). After receiving that appointment, she wrote home to her father, “You were threatening me that if I didn’t get a focus in life, I’d end up in the Poor House. Well, I’m in the Poor House now!”
She nursed there for several years (her only time outside St Maries), before taking charge of the House of Mercy, to which she devoted most of her life. She loved that ministry and those she worked with.
She treated them with care, respect and unfailing devotion, and they loved and appreciated her in return. I got to know several of these women during my many childhood trips to Cork, as did my sisters. Sr Helen’s solicitude shone through. They were like extended family.
But not only was Sr Helen a wonderful carer, she had also great business acumen. She ran the knitwear enterprise in a professional way. She was able to negotiate with tough clients like Dunnes Stores and earn their loyalty and respect. I always thought that had she pursued a career in the outside world, she would have been a millionaire. It seemed that everything she touched turned to gold.
After she retired from this work in the mid-1990s, she had responsibility for the ministry to the poor here in St Maries, a task she took on with relish, a task central to the Mercy Sisters’ charism. She committed herself totally to every ministry she undertook, recognising that it was in service to God.
Several words come to mind when I think of Sr Helen. The first is determination. Once she decided to do something it was going to be done. She never countenanced failure. Twice she broke her leg badly, but each time she came back more resolute than ever. I picture her slowly climbing the hill on Cape Clear island on top of which stood our rented house, a hill so steep the owner was shocked the day we arrived on the island and he saw how old our little group was. But foot by foot, she climbed, never hesitating, til she reached the top. And she would do it all over again the next day. A metaphor for her life.
In her fifties she decided to learn to drive. I don’t know how she passed the test or negotiated Cork city’s crazy roads without incident, or found her way around the country – but she did. Her determination saw her through. She felt safe because her choice of car was based on religious considerations – a Fiat 131. Fiat – confidence or trust in God. 131 reminded her of the Holy Trinity – one in three and three in one.
She taught my sister Margaret how to drive, and after two or three quick lessons, had Margaret drive all the way from St Maries of the Isle to Doon. How both arrived home unscathed can only be attributed to the intervention of the Holy Trinity.
Another word is obsession, or in teen speak, fangirling. She was a fangirl before the term was invented. She would become interested in an individual, a tv show, a celebrity, a politician and be utterly devoted to them. Bobby Ewing, Princess Diana, David Beckham, Ian Paisley, CJ Haughey, Jack Lynch, in the very old days – an eclectic collection. She loved gardening too, and spent hours arranging and rearranging her patch of garden, inveigling the help of Bertie. It was a mystery how she was able to lift rocks so large they were almost heavier than herself.
She was a bit of a gatherer/collector, and her desk and room would be crammed with trinkets and assorted paraphernalia of all kinds. To confirmed minimalists like myself, it was hard on the eyes. The decluttering expert Marie Kondo would have her work cut out with Sr Helen. All her possessions gave her joy.
Another word, of course, is home/family. Though away from Doon for three quarters of a century, she still called it home. She must have been one of the few religious sisters in Ireland to still have her own bed in the house of her birth right into her nineties. And home she came, as often as she could, by car or train, until just a few years ago. She was fortunate to be able to do that, and we were fortunate that she could. She doted on her nieces and nephews and her grandnieces and grandnephews, Ryans and Moloneys. She showered us with love, offered us opportunities – my sisters got summer jobs in Cork because of her – helped my mother promote her knitting enterprise.
With her sturdy old camera, she chronicled our growing up, filling albums with photographs neatly captioned. She joined us on family holidays, took us on pilgrimage, filled us with goodies. She loved Vienetta ice cream. She kept a daily diary that recorded all the her thoughts and activities, as well as how often she rang my mother (which was almost daily) and how often she came home (almost every other week). She loved us and we knew it. I think of all the copies of Reality magazine she sold for me, going door to door, many hundreds of them, with her ledger full of subscribers and her accounts carefully tallied. It was a difficult chore to do, month after month, year after year, and I knew the reason she did it was out of love for me.
The word I associate with her most of all is faith. Sr Helen gave her life completely to God. Everything she did was rooted in her unwavering faith in God. Never afraid of exploring new avenues to God, she enthusiastically embraced the new religious movements in the church that followed after Vatican II. In the 70s, it was Charismatic Renewal. We spent several Easters at giant Charismatic Renewal meetings with her in Limerick. She never received the gift of tongues but she was loquacious enough in one language. Later it was the neo-Catechumenate. Every week she had prayer meetings to attend, and every year pilgrimages to go on. She didn’t just know about Jesus, she knew Jesus. She was a wonderful ad for the religious life and the Christian faith, a woman of compassion, a sister of Mercy. Knowing that she was in God’s safe hands, she had no fear of death.
Though wonderfully cared for and comfortable in her last years, it wasn’t easy to watch this irrepressible, vivacious, dynamic little woman slowly fade to skin and bone. To see her mute and disengaged, smiling but not really comprehending, living but not alive.
For almost three quarters of a century she served God as a Sister of Mercy in this place. She was a rock of faith, a fount of love, a model for how a religious should live. She conveyed, in the words of Pope Francis, the joy of the Gospel. She lived the Sermon on the Mount.
In his apostolic letter, Gaudete et Exsultate, published last year, Pope Francis examines what it means to be a Christian, what makes a saint. He describes the beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as “the Christian’s identity card.” He says, “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”
We gain true happiness by aligning our wills and our actions with the will of God, as expressed in the beatitudes. In living like this, Pope Francis says, we become the saint next door. That is how I remember Sr Helen, a saint next door, who espoused the beatitudes. Pure in heart, poor in spirit, righteous, meek, merciful, empathetic, a peacemaker.
We commit her soul to God today, relieved that she is free at last from infirmity and the burdens of old age, thrilled that she is now able to enjoy, with her family and loved ones gone before her, the just reward of a good and faithful servant of God. We rejoice and are glad.