Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart’s Final Days and Farewell
In October 2008 Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart was diagnosed with cancer. We were advised that she would need 24-hour care, which we were not able to provide, so we found a place for her at Nazareth House where she settled into the lovely atmosphere with much devoted care. We were told that she probably had 2 ½ months to live. With her strong West Coast spirit, she lived almost 2 ½ more years!
When Sr Mary of the Angels joined her at Nazareth in October 2009, they regularly booked a wheelchair taxi and came home for the day. The last time Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart was able to do this was on 4 January this year. We celebrated her 94th birthday which fell on the following day. Sister had been getting much weaker, and the nursing staff said she was too weak to come home again.
On Tuesday 22nd February, when we had the large 6.3 magnitude aftershock, tragically Nazareth House was badly damaged and uninhabitable with liquefaction and structural damage. All of the residents had to gather in one room for two days. Then the Health Board relocated them to other parts of the South Island. We had a lot of difficulty trying to locate Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart. We heard that she was in Princess Margaret Hospital. On the Saturday, after many phone calls, we were given the news that she had been flown up to Nelson in a Hercules plane. She was put in Otumarara - a different hospital to Sr Mary of the Angels.
Both of our Sisters received a very warm welcome in Stoke, Nelson. The Parish Priest there, Fr Maurice Carmody, couldn’t do enough for them and the other ‘exiles’ from Christchurch. Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart’s great-niece Tracey, and great-great nephew Rhys were regular visitors, as were members of the Catholic Parishes. We kept in regular contact with them, and on Sunday 13th February, Fr Maurice let us know that when he took Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart Holy Communion, she was very weak. A decision was made to visit her, and early on Tuesday morning Sr Elizabeth and Sr Cushla flew to Nelson and spent the day with her. They had a lovely time – she was amazed and grateful that they had flown all that way to see her. She was very alert, but not eating or drinking much. She asked them why the Lord hadn’t come for her yet. Her rosary was never out of her hands. The Sisters let her know that they would need to leave for the airport at 5pm. Because of her failing eyesight, she had a ‘talking clock’. When it interrupted the conversation “It is 5pm”, she made an indication with her hand that it was now time to say farewell. Those last moments were precious.
On the Friday morning, our friend and Carmelite Secular Order member, Ben Gibbs, brought Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart Holy Communion, which ended up being Viaticum. We thought it would be better if our Sisters could be in the same rest home, and a place was available, so in the afternoon Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart was transferred by ambulance to Kensington Courts, just 4 doors down the corridor from Sr Mary of the Angels. Both of them were so happy to be together again. We were very pleased, and thought that they would be able to spend her last few weeks or months in each other’s company. But it was not to be. She had a restless night and from her armchair at 7.15 in the morning, her last words to the nurse were: “I think I’m dying.” It was Saturday 19th, the Feast of St Joseph, when Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart went home to the Lord.
The funeral was arranged for the following Thursday and her body was brought down from Nelson to Christchurch, arriving home to our Carmel just before 10am on Tuesday 22nd March. It was lovely to have her in our midst again. She looked beautiful. She stayed in our Choir, the place where she had prayed so devotedly for seven decades, for the next two days where we prayed surrounding her casket.
On Wednesday, Tracey and Rhys flew with Sr Mary of the Angels from Nelson to Christchurch. That evening many people gathered for a vigil Rosary, led by Bishop Barry Jones. At the end of the rosary her niece, Jean, gave a eulogy, as did Sr Marie, the superior at Nazareth House, where Sister had been resident since October 2008, and our own Sr Teresa. Jean spoke of how whenever she had to take Sister to a hospital appointment, and wanted to make a detour here or there, Sister would always tell her to take her back to Carmel by the shortest way. She also spoke of what an important place Sister had in her extended family, and how she brought such a presence of peace to it. Sr Marie spoke on how impressed she was with Sister’s dedication to prayer – and how she seemed to be always in the presence of God. Sr Teresa, who had lived with Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart for more than 60 years, shared a few reminiscences, and how Sister had always been so generous and so prayerful.
Sister’s Requiem Mass was at 10:30am on Thursday 24th March. Bishop Barry Jones presided, along with Bishop Basil Meeking, Fr Simon Eccleton as MC and many priests of our Diocese. Our Chapel was full. Ken Joblin, who is without sight, played the organ beautifully for the Mass, completely by ear. Sr Mary of the Sacred Heart would have really appreciated this, as she had been almost completely sightless during the last years of her life, never showing any irritation or impatience with this handicap. She would also have appreciated the Psalm sung by Fr John Adams – including the line “it is the Lord who gives sight to the blind”: she has now received that all so important true sight. Daniel Ho, who had visited Sister after work each day when he lived in Christchurch and played his guitar and sang for her, and whom she missed greatly when he moved to Auckland last year, accompanied the Communion Hymn, Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All, with his guitar. Members of Sister’s family proclaimed the readings and led us in the Prayers of Intercession. Bishop Barry gave a very moving homily on the contemplative life, and on Sister’s vocation.
At the end of the Mass, the congregation filed past the grille behind which Sister’s casket lay, and then the Bishops, Priests and Sister’s very large family entered the enclosure for her burial. (Sister was the second youngest of 12!) We processed from our chapel, along the cloister, and then down through the paddocks to our cemetery, singing hymns along the way. This would certainly be the largest burial in our history. When the grave diggers were here on Tuesday, they discovered a wasp nest in the big Toi Toi shrub which is in the middle of the cemetery. Our groundsman put petrol in it to clear it on Wednesday, as did one of the Sisters later that day. Our efforts did not enjoy the hoped for result, and as we stood around the grave, those of us who were in the know and standing near the Toi Toi were aware of wasps whizzing around past heads, and were sending up fervent prayers that nobody would get stung. Fortunately nobody else seemed to notice, and all went well. It is a tradition of the West Coast, where Sister came from, that the family fill in the grave. Phil Kingan, the undertaker who knew the family well, suggested this to them, so it was almost 1pm before everybody left the enclosure. The ample afternoon tea was served by our Secular Order who add much to the occasion by their presence and hospitality which many mentioned to us. Members of the family commented that after coming inside our enclosure, they now understood why Sister always wanted to get straight back to Carmel by “the shortest way”.
A big thank you to all those who helped us in many ways at this time, especially our Auckland Carmel who sent us another large number of altar breads to fulfill our orders ( they had already gifted a supply to help us after the earthquake), and all who have written and sent messages. Your love and support has been very much appreciated. Thank you also to our Secular Order members and many kind friends who regularly visited Sister over the past 2 ½ years at Nazareth House.
With our prayers and much gratitude,
Your loving Carmelite Sisters