Sister Cecilia Carter (formerly Sister Mary Cecilia)
Mary June Rae Carter was born at home in Santa Ana, California, on Aug. 7, 1926. She was the first of three daughters of her father Herb and her mother Gertrude Alton Carter. Her younger sisters, Caroline and Joanne, both preceded her in death. When her parents brought her to be baptized at St. Boniface, her parish Church, the priest refused to five her the name June Rae because it was not a saint’s name. So, her parents consented to add the name Mary. Her family moved every year from the time Celia was in the first grade until she finished the eighth grade. Celia attended several grammar schools. When she was in the eighth grade, her father finally built a new home that satisfied him. Celia’s close affiliation with her family is reflected in the fact that she died on her sister Caroline’s birthday and is being buried on her mother’s birthday, today, said Sister Paula Modaff in her commentary for Sister Cecilia Carter, formerly Sister Mary Cecilia, who passed away on Sunday, March 31, 2019. She was 92 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 66 years.
Sister Paula continued: Celia attended Marywood Academy in Anaheim and graduated in 1943. She worked for her father in the Railroad Express office for a year before she attended and graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1948, earning a bachelor’s degree in music. Her father did not approve of her desire to enter religious life. Celia made a retreat early in 1952, and the priest confessor encouraged her to follow her call. She had to make most of her preparations to enter in secret. Her mother and her Aunt Cecilia were a big support to her at that time. Finally, sometime after 10 p.m., on July 22, 1952, Celia arrived at the Woods, where she was greeted by her novice mistress, Sister Marie Ambrose, and novices Margaret Kern and Jeanne Knoerle. After spending three nights on the train, she soaked in the bathtub so long that Margaret Kern had to tell her it was time to get out. Her trunk did not arrive for some time after Celia entered, so she wore bright red pumps with her postulant uniform for a week until her nun shoes came.
During the period of her temporary vows, 1955-60, Celia was missioned for short stints to various schools in Chicago, Jasper, Indianapolis and Maryland. After professing her perpetual vows, Celia was sent to California, where she ministered at several missions until her last mission at Tustin. Mary Therese Lea told me that most music teachers would go to get the students when they forgot to come for their lesson. Not Celia – she would read a spiritual book during the half-hour lesson time.
Our Nancy Bartasavich was one of Celia’s pupils and a good friend. Nancy is Celia’s second health care representative and often checked on her, comforting her with one of Nancy’s trademark songs. One example of Celia’s love of nature was that she left a lovely cactus garden wherever she was missioned. When Celia was ready to retire in 2002, she stated that she was making arrangements to return to the Woods. I asked her why not the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange since she loved her native California and had both an aunt and a cousin in that community. She replied: “I have no roots in Orange. My roots are at the Woods.”
In August of 1977, both Celia and I were missioned at St. Elizabeth in Van Nuys, California. Celia had finished her terms as Provincial and I had come from our House of Prayer, which had closed. Quite soon, Celia confided to me that she also felt called to a more contemplative lifestyle and had inquired with the Trappistines at White Thorn in northern California. So for a few months, we set about looking for a suitable empty convent where we could establish a house of prayer. As Providence would have it, we got sidetracked and ended up visiting every Mexican Restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, always sharing a carafe of burgundy wine with a taco or two.
Celia served as a counselor at Camp Teresita Pines in the San Bernardino Mountains before she entered community. In 1972, the Sisters of Providence were invited to staff the camp. From that year until 1985, Celia served as camp manager, than as laundress and sacristan. During camping trips, Celia played the harmonica, leading the singing around the camp fire. Celia was at least 14 years older than I, yet she could both outride me on the bike and out hike me on the trails. Because she had such a deep love for cats and also for birds, I once asked her how she could have so much affection for cats who kill birds. She simply answered: “They both do what God created them to do.” Celia’s close friend, Kathy Stephens, called Celia a “gray shafted flicker.”
Denise Wilkinson tells a story that illustrates Celia’s sense of humor with her ability to take life in stride. Celia had registered for a room in LeFer for the summer. She requested a bed board. Denise instructed the staff to be sure a bed board was in the room. Soon after Celia had signed in, she returned to Dense at the desk. She stated: “I knew that I had to ask for a bed board, but I didn’t know I also had to request a mattress!”
As early as the 80s and 90s, Celia was reading and listening to tapes by such religious and philosophic authors and Deepak Chopra, Perna Chodron and Thich Nat Han. I said to her, “Don’t you ever read anything by a Catholic writer?” She simply smiled. Of course, she already had read the complete works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
When Celia did arrive at the Woods, she became deeply homesick for California. Kathy Stephens told Ann Sullivan about Celia’s love for kittens. Ann gave Celia the key to the alpaca barn and Celia spent her afternoons humanizing the litter of new kittens and finding herself less homesick in the meantime.
Celia loved to play checkers with Mary Lou Ruck. Until her last few months, she was one of a regular group of sisters playing Rummikub on Saturdays. From personal experience, I know that she was not above cheating if the game was not going her way.
Until last summer, a familiar sight at the Woods would be Celia donned in a big straw hat, riding her amigo out to St. Joe’s Lake. More than once, her amigo ran out of energy and Celia would have to wait for security to pick her up, as well as the defunct amigo. Once she told me that she was bird watching in the cemetery and she took a sharp turn in her amigo, which dumped over and she fell from it. She was so afraid that someone would see her and forbid her to go out unaccompanied anymore that she jumped up quickly, righted the amigo, and acted as if nothing had happened.
During the early spring of 2018, Celia had a serious bout of pneumonia from which she never fully recovered. Her appetite and energy slowly ebbed away with each passing month. Finally, during the last week of March, it was evident that she was on her last journey to God. Right after her communal anointing of the Sick, she asked to be placed in bed. Her hospice nurse, Angie, made her comfortable with suitable medication. Celia had some periods of restlessness on Saturday and again she was sedated sufficiently to be able to rest. Early Sunday morning, she quietly and peacefully slipped into God’s arms while I was asleep in her easy chair. Rest in peace, dear Celia of the two-fold crown. The joy and love you shared with all of us lives on until we are reunited once again.
Funeral arrangements for Sister Cecilia took place on Friday, April 12, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. A Wake took place at 9 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m.
Memorial contributions in Sister Cecilia’s honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Cecilia in the comment section below.
Sister Cecilia Carter (formerly Sister Mary Cecilia)
Teacher for 41 years in schools in Indiana, Illinois, Maryland and California.
In Indiana: St. John, Indianapolis (1958-59); Holy Family, Jasper (1959-60).
In Illinois: St. Andrew, Chicago (1955-56); St. Mel-Holy Ghost, Chicago (1958).
In Maryland: Ascension, Halethorpe (1956-58).
In California: St. Elizabeth, Van Nuys (1960-64, 1977-82, 1986-91); St. Joseph, Hawthorne (1964-73); St. Ambrose, Hollywood (1973-74); St. Genevieve, Panorama City (1986-91); Our Lady of Lourdes, Tujunga (1982-86); St. Callistus/St. Columba, Garden Grove (1991-99).
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