Who would have thought that these two humble and inoffensive Servants of God would bring our nation to a standstill due to the sudden and tragic nature of their deaths. Those of us who have sat wearily through meetings in relation to education, often hear the term, “education from the cradle to the grave.” For Frances and Marie, this was not just a throw away comment, but a way of life. It is not lost on us that these two ladies, who dedicated their lives to education, died on the Feast of St Jerome, synonymous with education.
The Mercy Congregation, in their Chapter Statement “Our Vision of Mercy,” asked the questions:
Who are we as Sisters of Mercy?
The response was “to be women of hope and compassion, to be found in the various complexities of modern day life; responding to the much diversity that call for a deepening of understanding of how to educate and empower the People of God.”
If anyone was to personify this ideal, Marie and Frances were not found wanting. The scripture today, as always, is meant to disturb our peace; challenge us to walk humbly with our God; to teach and to guide; to strive to become holy.
Standing yesterday at the foot of their coffins, I remarked on their Profession Certificates, written and taken in a different era. The beautiful hand written vows, professed in 1957 and 61 respectively. What a different world these two sisters began their religious life in. In modern day religious life, it would be tempting to remain hiding in the cloisters, but Marie and Frances brought the gospel, which was their guide, to those they met “from the cradle to the grave.”
Imagine how they are blushing in Heaven to realise that their silent witness has now suddenly become headline news. Bishops; Provincials; Religious and civic leaders; the People of God, all of us, bursting with pride in association with these two wonderful women. That extended warmth was demonstrated yesterday morning, when accompanied by Bishop Noel; we received the thoughts and prayers of the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Archbishop of Armagh and various leaders of the Anglican Church. The names of Marie and Frances, prayed aloud in St Anne’s Cathedral. There is going to be some conversation in Heaven about that one between the two of them.
We often hear that in married life, chalk and cheese are attracted to each other. Partners often very different in their personalities and demeanour. Well, it is no different in Religious Life. We are all very different under the umbrella of the same call to serve God. Frances and Marie could not have been more different.
Frances, with her veil and traditional religious dress. Marie, the lady of grace, the student of Lonergan, reflecting personal discovery in modern day religious life. While Marie, the eternal student would have been a welcome companion for me in Miltown Park, whilst struggling with phenomenology, a subject hard to spell never mind understand, I think I would have been better suited helping Frances and Anne cleaning the church at 7o’clock in the morning, as she was last week..
Malcolm Muggeridge, in writing an account of the life of Mother Teresa, entitled it “Something Beautiful for God.”
Doing something beautiful for Jesus, begins with an understanding of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus acts first, and we act in response to him. Marie and Frances meditated upon Christ, who touched their lives, and then they acted upon it, particularly in the field of education.
Doing something beautiful for Jesus, is ultimately expressed in acts of worship. We can do many things for Christ, but to pray and to worship is perhaps the most beautiful of all. What we do on the outside must come from internal reflection in prayer. That was definitely the case with these women of prayer.
Doing something beautiful for God is costly to us. The personal cost to these two religious, and what they gave up was enormous. They chose to walk with Jesus, paying the cost of the sacrifices of religious life. Ironically, they became mothers and mothered so many in their lives, with love and tenderness. We don’t earn grace. Grace is a gift from God, and these women of grace were our gift from God.
Doing something beautiful for Jesus is their greatest legacy. The greatest thing any religious sister can leave behind in the world is their testimony to the love of Christ. Wouldn’t it be great that at the end of our lives, people would talk about what we had done because of our love for Christ, in the way that people are now talking about Frances and Marie.
Frs. Peter and Brendan, you too have given your lives to the service of God, just as your sisters did, and despite the ache of loss, how proud you and your families must be of these women of grace.
Marie leaves a legacy as an enthusiastic educationalist, expressed in Second and Third level education, here in Belfast and Nigeria. Institutions such as Mercy College; St Joseph’s Training College, now St Mary’s University College; the School of Education at Queen’s University; on the Board of Governors of both Mercy Primary and Mercy College; an author and educationalist to the end.
Frances, who devoted her life to the children of Mercy Primary on the Crumlin Road. As principal, her maxim was “be good to the teachers and to the staff.” How edifying it is to find people falling over each other; ex pupils and staff, trying to express how important she was in their lives. Following her retirement, she really began to work. Selfishly we took her on as an adopted Passionist. She immersed herself in the work of Holy Cross parish. Her roles too numerous to mention, but foremost was her care of the bereaved of the parish. Such was her commitment that Marie often joked with her, “Have you any good news?”
It was that unifying Mercy call that brought these two women of very different personalities and demeanours together, as Fr Kieran said last night, to a place where their foundress, Catherine McAuley, would have been proud.
If we imagine that this was our funeral, how would the essence of who we are be communicated? What would people say after we are gone? Will they tell stories of how we loved each other? That is the challenge and mandate that these beautiful women leave for each of us. Their lasting note in education
As educationalists, I hope Frances and Marie, you approve of these verses of how we attempt to deal with grief and loss.
For most of us,
death appears as a fixed horizon
and those who pass over it leave an emptiness we must fill
with a season of grieving.
And yet, with our sorrow
There is also a knowledge of light,
a certainty in that sense of loss
belongs not to any ending
but to the limitation of our vision.
Death is an experience for those left behind,
not for those who are moving
from one stage of living to another.
It is the Christ who dwells within us
who is free to step back and forth
over the horizon of death,
containing our grief in his Passion
and our knowledge of light
In his transcendence,
showing us that death and resurrection
are the two sides of the one coin.
So while grief goes on, the tears, the hurting,
I know in the truth of Jesus Christ
that the hollowness I feel
at the departure of loved ones,
is the reality, the hollowness
of the empty tomb.
(taken from “AOTEAROA PSALMS, Prayers of a New People”