Sister Mary Loyola Bender
“There was a prophetess (in the temple), Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.”
—– A reading from the Gospel of Luke (2:36-38)
Those sisters who entered community in the mid-40s and on into the 60s, will well understand why I chose this reading for Sister Mary Loyola’s wake service, said Sister Ann Casper in her commentary for Sister Mary Loyola Bender, who died Tuesday, August 16, 2016, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She was 98 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 77 years.
Sister Mary Loyola was sacristan in this “temple” of the Church of the Immaculate Conception for 23 years! (And, incidentally, her baptismal name was Anna). She had barely arrived in September at her first assignment to teach grades three and four at St. Benedict’s in Terre Haute in 1945, when, in November, she was summoned back to the Woods. Newly appointed chaplain, Father Emil Goosens, had laid down an ultimatum to the general superior. If a sacristan was not appointed, he would request a change. And, in those days, you know who prevailed. I’ll say more about this chapter of Mary Loyola’s life later in the commentary.
Anna Loyola was born Oct. 13, 1917, to John and Mary Cecilia Hay Bender in Owensboro, Ky. Sister is survived by her brother Joseph, as well as several nieces and nephews. Two brothers, John and George, and a sister Mary Catherine, preceded her in death.
Anna graduated from St. Joseph School and St. Joseph Academy in Owensboro and three years later, Feb. 2, 1939, entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence. She was given the name Sister Mary Loyola. She had an aunt in community, Sister Louise Marie Bender, which may explain why she entered the SPs rather than one of several other religious communities closer to her home.
Her reception into the novitiate and profession of first and perpetual vows all occurred on Aug. 15, 1939, 1941 and 1946, respectively.
Following her brief stint of two months as a teacher, she never returned to the classroom and the rest of her places of ministry were never brief stays. As previously mentioned, she was sacristan in the “Big Church” for 23 years. Sacristan then and sacristan now bear no resemblance! Hers was the era of marble high altars, with different levels of “marble shelves,” every inch of which seemed to require brass candelabra of some size with three, five, or seven candles or colored votive lights to match its height. Huge vases filled with flowers, usually arranged by the sacristan, were carefully placed “just-so” amid the candelabra. And one could place these items only by stepping up a five- or six-step ladder, all the while balancing the vase or the candelabra – and to say they were heavy, would be an understatement.
Many recall having their eyes riveted on Mary Loyola as she glided her way gracefully around the sanctuary, one by one lighting the candles for Mass or for Benediction (on Sundays and feasts, this could require close to five minutes of more). She always appeared unflustered, calm and steady.
A former member, Carol Reuss, sent this recollection of Sister Mary Loyola and describes well what those of us who witnessed these daily rituals felt:
“Ah, the quiet major domo of the Big Church for years and years, who dressed the place with poinsettias for Christmas, after carefully removing the pollen sources so she (who was allergic to poinsettias) and many others could breathe and not suffer congested lungs and teary eyes those weeks of celebrating the holiday. That was but one of the mostly unheralded tasks she did with such grace that to a klutz like me was awesome.”
And, Carol added, “What a challenge you face to make sure the altar for her final liturgy is up to her standards.”
Sister Mary Loyola was also a gifted seamstress who made many of the vestments, altar cloths and other linens used in worship. She also had the patience and endurance to teach novices how to make habit skirts and serre-têtes, not an easy chore by any means.
When she left the Woods in 1968, having earned a certificate in administration of retirement homes, she served as the administrator at Providence Retirement Home in New Albany, Ind., a position she held for 10 years. From there she had an eight-year stint as director of maintenance and employees at Immaculata in Washington, D.C.
Her skills and talents as sacristan (and cook and seamstress) were again called into service in 1986, when she went to St. Joseph Convent in Quincy, Mass., which at that time served as a retirement home for sisters living out east. Even though she herself was “retired,” she spent the next 17 years there as the sacristan for the parish church and in convent service.
Mary Loyola returned to the Woods again in 2003 and was able to assist in many areas with her talent for sewing. She moved to Lourdes and then to Mother Theodore Hall in 2010 where she continued a ministry of prayer.
Few among us have ever heard Mary Loyola complain or see her upset. However, I was told there was a time, shortly after being moved to Mother Theodore Hall East, that she let it be known that she did not much care for the door of the carpenter shop which faced her room, because it was, in her words, an “eyesore” and she certainly didn’t want to look at it all day, every day, from her bedroom window. She mentioned this often enough that a volunteer was engaged to scrape the old paint from the wooden door and give it a fresh coat.
That same persistence was evident years earlier when she decided that every bedroom at the motherhouse should have a crucifix. She proceeded to obtain a plaster of Paris mold for the corpus, made all of them (probably close to a hundred) and attached them to pieces of wood to form the modern-looking crucifix.
In Sister Mary Loyola’s 77 years of religious life, like the prophetess Anna, she seemed content to work quietly behind the scenes, using the gifts she had been given to praise God. She indeed did God’s work, ever “the servant,” going wherever needed, and giving a certain dignity and grace to whatever work she did. Let her works now praise her as she joins Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and all the company of saints in the “temple” of heaven.
Funeral services for Sister Mary Loyola were Friday, Aug. 19, and Saturday, Aug. 20, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
A Wake took place from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., on Friday, Aug. 19, with Vespers at 4:30 p.m.
Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Saturday, Aug. 20.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary Loyola in the comment section below.
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