Circular of Sister Marie of the Immaculate Heart OCD
Carmel of Christ the King, Christchurch, NZ
1922 - 2012
Margaret Gwendoline White was born on the 16 December, 1922 near Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand. Florence and Jack White had ten children, six sons and four daughters. Margaret was the fourth child and the oldest daughter. Her father was a Bank Manager at the BNZ. Their first shift was to Wairoa in the North Island in 1927, and then to Lower Hutt near Wellington in 1934. The family remained there until Jack’s retirement in 1945.
Margaret completed her education at Sacred Heart College. She was a diligent pupil and did very well in her exams in all subjects. Taking an active part in sport, particularly tennis, she won the College singles and doubles champs on three occasions. Golf was also a sport she enjoyed. Among the second intake at the new Wellington Dental School, she trained to become a school dental nurse, passing all her exams and graduating with honours after two years. She went on to work at various school clinics in the Lower Hutt area. Later in her career Margaret moved to Blenheim in the South Island to a clinic in the Rai Valley, enjoying country life and her country children.
Growing up in a family of ten children, Margaret, as the eldest daughter, had a vital role in a busy household. Much responsibility fell on her shoulders, a role she was to carry for many years alongside her career. Her sister, Barbara, recalled that she was very good at sewing, particularly at drafting patterns, having done a course at Petone Technical College, and thrilled her younger sisters with the latest fashions: puffed sleeves and Peter Pan collars! Being an avid reader, Margaret’s idea of relaxation was a good book, seated in a comfy chair in the sunshine. Her love of reading was fully satisfied in Carmel and enjoyed for as long as she was able. A good film was also a favourite pastime, often joined by her mother and sisters. On most Sunday evenings, after tea, Margaret could be seen heading down the road to Sts Peter and Paul Church for Rosary and Benediction.
Her brother, Maurice, said that as the family grew over the years, there was plenty to keep everyone busy in the house and garden. Margaret was a great worker and took a special interest in her youngest sister, Anne’s welfare, who was the tenth child in the family. Family responsibilities for Margaret were to intensify dramatically when her father died suddenly in 1949 with heart failure. Given the age of some of her younger family members, Margaret’s support for her mother and the family was more valuable than ever.
Another brother, Tony, remembers it was always considered Margaret had a vocation and would enter a convent. Margaret herself wrote: “During my years as a dental nurse, I did think of the religious life from time to time. I had a brother a priest (Fr Jack became a Marist priest serving in Tonga) and I knew he would be pleased if I did decide to enter a convent and I also knew my family would be very happy about that too. Then one night it suddenly came to me, “Yes, that’s it, a religious but in a contemplative setting.” And so Carmel was the answer. So it did not really surprise the family when Margaret announced she was going into a convent, but what did surprise them was the decision to join a ‘closed’ Order.
It wasn’t until nine years after her father’s death, on the 8 December 1958, that she entered the Carmelite Monastery in Christchurch at the age of thirty five. This was considered a late vocation in those days but Margaret had sacrificed those years to care for the family and was at last free to follow where the Lord was leading. “The very moment I entered the Carmelite Monastery, I knew it was where I was supposed to be.” So she wrote in recent years. A big adjustment for this young woman - used to managing a family, career and sporting interests - to take such a step. It would have cost a great deal to leave her dependent mother and travel to the South Island. Her great love of Our Lady was obvious as everything possible she brought with her was blue! Sr Mary of the Angel’s was almost due to leave the Novitiate on her entry, and she didn’t have another companion until August the following year when Sr Mary Joseph entered, also from Wellington. They were often teased about their renowned windy city.
Sister settled into the life fulfilling many offices: Infirmarian, Altar Bread baking, Provisory and sewing offices along with kitchen work. She was an excellent Infirmarian who couldn’t do enough for her patients. One Sister remembers gratefully how she ensured the meals were kept hot! She was most hospitable, going to no end of trouble to provide for visitors and workmen and made sure they had ample. It was the same when she cooked for the community, always ensuring we had plenty. She was used to feeding hungry brothers and sisters! With her artistic bent, Sister made the most beautiful cards with her fine, delicate printing, decorated with roses or other flowers in watercolour. She also knitted exquisite baby booties and was an expert at advanced hardangar embroidery. Many of these precious pieces decorate our Chapel or were given to friends.
Sr Marie had a wonderful spirit of gratitude becoming even more marked in her later life. She wrote touching notes for the least thing done for her (one Sister kept these in her Bible) and gave Sisters little gifts on their special days. Letter writing was also a forte and the family remember them with gratitude. Tony said: “Letters from Margaret were a delight, always so positive and full of news from the convent, as well as a promise of prayers for us all, which were a powerhouse for our families.” Her special friends from her dental school days, Barbara and Ann Ross, remained in touch until she died and were most appreciative of her “kind words and spiritual help” all through the years. Barbara, who trained with her, had no idea of the big family she came from and her responsibilities at home. She was impressed by her humble attitude and her sacrificial life before entering Carmel. Sr Marie was deeply affected by Fr Jack’s premature death in 1979 at age 62 in Tonga. They had enjoyed a lively exchange of letters and were a great support to each other. He also brought life-long friends into her life especially Sr Helena LCM, who worked with Fr Jack in Tonga and was at his funeral there. Fittingly, Sister Helena read at Sr Marie’s funeral.
Once when Sister was asked how she viewed the world, her reply was: “We are very conscious of the world that surrounds us and keep it in our daily prayers. Countless people seem to live in a vacuum with nothing to hold on to. Countless others live out the Gospel values with willing heart and hands towards their neighbour. The sick, the poor, the aged find comfort that we are praying for them and have our support. Through their stress and strain they come to know the power of God who loves and cares for them and often their troubles are lifted through their faith in the power of prayer.”
There were growing concerns around 2007 - 2008 as Sister’s memory began to deteriorate. She was subject to some nasty falls, one breaking her pelvic bone. Also she was found several times at night on the floor. It was heart breaking for her to have to gradually let go and lose her independence in many little ways. Sr Mary of the Angels was occupying the Infirmary at this time being partially disabled by a stroke, so Sr Marie joined her there for needed companionship. As Sister was freed from the responsibilities of life, she who was generally reserved by nature, kept us entertained by her ready sense of humour and witty, pertinent remarks that have become classics. Her transparent childlike attitude, often had herself and us in stitches. Sr Mary of the Angels had an electric wheelchair which Sr Marie would push, mainly for support, forgetting it was automatic. The chair would stop dead. Her strenuous pushing wouldn’t budge the thing. Then whizzz!!! Off it would go without her. Her face said it all. She would join in the merriment - tears running down all cheeks. Graciousness and gratitude, far from diminishing, became more pronounced than ever. Sometimes she went back several times to her carer to make sure she had thanked her for her services! That year or so was a delight in the Infirmary and if it wasn’t for physical frailty we would have gladly kept her with us.
After some time in the Public Hospital following a fall in April 2009 (they kept her for almost three weeks with much love and concern until they found a suitable Home ), she was admitted to dementia care at Admatha Home, then to Avonlea Home to be closer to us and finally to interim hospital care at Villa Gardens Home after breaking a bone in August 2010. Sister received exceptional care at each Home and was much appreciated for her graciousness and good nature, responding to the wonderful kindness of her nurses. Sr Mary of the Angels was providentially also at Villa Gardens after evacuation from Nazareth House due to the earthquakes. We visited whenever we could along with Barbara and Doug living in Christchurch, Tony and Kathleen and other family and friends when in town.
In September 2011 becoming gradually frailer, she was transferred to the hospital section at Villa Gardens. The peace in Sister’s room was heavenly and the Rosary was always in her hands. Often a Rosary CD would be playing with lovely hymns, and the beauty of the garden outside added to the tranquillity within. Sister was awaiting with great patience the call to Heaven.
On 1st April, Palm Sunday night, just as we were beginning our retreat for Pentecost, at 12.30 am, the doorbell rang throughout the Monastery – rather alarming as the entrance gates were locked. A versatile policeman had climbed over the wall in response to a phone call that Sr Marie was dying and they couldn’t get us by phone. The generous police officers offered to take us and waited until Mother Dorothea and Sr Cushla got ready and were driven down to Villa Gardens a few kilometres away. No doubt a unique journey for all! Even the doors were closed at the Home. We thought a blast on their siren might get results! It was a long night, but Sr Mary of the Angels, Barbara and Doug and Patricia Sutherland OCDS were with us for the beautiful prayers for the dying, Mercy Chaplet, Rosary and hymns. Sister had gradually stabilised by the morning so we returned home.
Just before 4.30pm on 3 April we received a phone call to say there had been a change in Sister. Our neighbour, Dunstan, hastily clearing out his large van, drove Mother Dorothea and Sisters Elizabeth, Mary Teresa and Cushla to Villa Gardens. When we arrived, Fr John Joliffe SM had just begun the prayers for the dying. How blessed to have the Marist presence - a poignant link with her brother. We knelt around her bed for the prayers. When Fr John left, we prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet, a favourite of Sr Marie’s. At 6.00 pm she went very peacefully to the Lord.
As we prayed the Angelus her skin became creamy and her face serene and beautiful. The transformation in a few minutes during that final prayer was so special for one who had long suffered, and loved Our Lady so much.
Sister’s casket was brought back to the Monastery, remaining in the Novitiate oratory until our Bishop Barry Jones was free to preside at the Requiem Mass on 11 April eight days later. Emeritus Bishop Basil Meeking preached a moving homily to a large congregation and many priests: “If a person is called to a life of contemplative prayer it is the most absorbing, rewarding, enriching, demanding life there is. How blessed Sr Marie was to have such a life of intimate friendship with God. Now her quest is fulfilled her journey to the new Jerusalem is over.” Bishop Basil. Unfortunately it rained heavily, much to the dismay of the MC, Fr Chris Friel. He had generously organized to have the magnificent gold and white Easter copes and vestments from the Cathedral and our job was to pray for a fine day. It turned into praying for plenty of umbrellas as the cortege had to traverse several paddocks to our cemetery. Sister Marie was finally laid to rest under the peaceful old pine trees, after 54 generous years in the Lord’s service.
May her dear soul rest in peace.