Sister Francis Edwards (formerly Sister Francis Bernard)
I have chosen two passages for our reflection today. The first is from Jeremiah:
The Lord declares: This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33).
The second one is from Luke:
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” (Luke 18:1-8)
I have chosen these two passages because when I think of Sister Francis, the two characteristics that emerge are determination and persistence, said Sister Rosemary Schmalz in her commentary for Sister Francis Edwards, formerly Sister Francis Bernard, who passed away on Monday, March 2, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 95 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 77 years.
Sister Rosemary continued: But her persistence and determination were not characteristics with which she sought to get her own way but characteristics with which she followed the law of God, written on her heart, the law of love.
While I was General Secretary, Sister Anita Bechert retired from the Office of Records. When Sister Francis moved to Owens Hall, I asked her to be my assistant. She gladly accepted and held that position for three years. One day during these years, I asked her if she would like me to write her commentary. She broke into a great smile and gave an enthusiastic “Yes.” And lo, the next day, I got two typed pages of notes on her early life. She was not only determined and persistent; she was also organized and efficient.
According to Sister Francis, her father, Frank Edwards, was a mining engineer in southern Illinois. On Saturday nights, it was his habit to go across the river to Kentucky to dances. Ellis Gray played the piano at the particular dance hall that he frequented. I have no details on how they actually courted, but they married sometime before 1914. Soon after, Frank and Ellis moved to the iron mines in Minnesota. There Francis’ two brothers were born.
After 10 years in Minnesota, her father contracted pleurisy and had to leave the mines. The family moved to Oklahoma City where their daughter, Mary Emily, our Sister Francis, was born on September 20, 1924. Mary Emily attended Corpus Christi School, then staffed by the Sisters of Providence. She then attended the local public high school.
Sister Francis states that every summer, she and her mother took the bus to Evansville to visit her mother’s family in Kentucky. Perhaps these annual visits helped her realize that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods was not a too-far-away place. All we know is that she entered the Congregation in September 1942. She wasn’t received into the novitiate until August 1943; she had an 11-month postulancy. No wonder she was such a good Sister of Providence! During that postulancy, she received the name of Sister Francis Bernard.
Sister Francis taught elementary school for seven years and then started her “career” as a mathematics teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and a master’s degree in mathematics from Indiana State University. She told me that she did not have input into this path of study, but that she liked mathematics, had a background in it from high school, and so was quite happy with this choice. I know she was a well-loved teacher. Sister Ann Casper attests that when she and Sister Francis would attend the St. Rose reunions, the women would flock to greet her. Sister Gloria Memering’s sister, Kathy, told Sister Gloria multiple times that only with Sister Francis’ generous help was she able to master the mathematics she needed to pursue her studies as a nurse. In her file is a message from a former student, the kind of message we get during the phonathon. It says, “Sister Francis Bernard taught me at St. Agnes. She was always nice to me.” My guess is that this donor was not the school’s best math student.
Her ministry records show that her first 17 years of teaching mathematics were in high schools for girls. So when she was sent to teach at the co-ed John F. Kennedy High School in suburban St. Louis in 1969 (at age 47), it was her first experience teaching high school boys. Sister Denise, on mission with Sister Francis, recalls that she was loved by the students there but I know that it was a difficult transition. After two years there, she taught a year at Ladywood/St. Agnes. At this point, her father was in decline (her mother had died 12 years previously) and so she applied and was hired to teach mathematics at McGinnis High School in Oklahoma City. This was also a co-educational high school. After five years, she asked to study library science and earned a second master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma. I asked her why she chose to study library science and she replied that it was her way to get away from teaching boys.
She stayed on at McGinnis as librarian for another year and then after the death of her father, moved to California where she served for 20 years as librarian in three high schools as well as a seminary. In an article in our newspaper Community, the principal of St. Genevieve’s High School in Panorama City states that she “is the best librarian in the western hemisphere. … She is well read, professionally current and dedicated to excellence.” An English teacher had this to say, “Sister Francis is an absolute dream! I find that she is always at least four steps ahead of me when it involves supplementary sources. Not a week passes without her appearance at my door with an interesting article, a new journal, or a newly acquired filmstrip.”
She retired in 1999, but remained in California, giving convent service. In her last residence, she was caregiver for Sister Ann Mariam Zell.
Sister Ann Mariam moved to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 2005 and Sister Francis followed not too many months later, not to the motherhouse but to LaSalle Street in Indianapolis. With her usual determination and persistence, she set up the library at the new Providence Cristo Rey High School. She moved to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in 2008 and, as I have already mentioned, worked in the Office of Records until 2011. By then, she was 87. But even after that, her focus was service. She kept her eye on the orderliness of Owens Hall Library until the building closed. When Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College began its nursing program, she heard about it and gathered a variety of reference materials to complement the program. For this work, in 2015, she was given a Friends of Nursing Award from the department to recognize her “exceptional support.”
Sister Francis’ determination and persistence were accentuated in her later years. She could not bear to see anything go to waste. How many of you were offered some book or some object that she found somewhere but felt sure that you could use? I have to admit that her instincts were pretty good. She gave me several books that I actually found useful. And we all know how she hated having heat wasted and was known to surreptitiously turn off the blowers in the halls around the chapel even thought she had been asked over and over not to. Once I saw her doing it and taking my courage in both hands, said, “Francis, you know we have been asked many times not to touch those blowers.” She replied, “Well, I just did.” And who could stop her from walking out to the cemetery for every burial, even when she was using a walker? And for every book sale, she would come over with her walker on the days we were setting up. It was really a hazard for her to be there amid all the clutter, but this did not sway her determination to help.
And I have received reports of so many loving acts from so many of you. Lesley Wilson, from Linden Leaf Gifts, says that Sister Francis came regularly and always stopped by the bookcase of used books in the hall outside the Gift Shop to straighten them up. (By the way, she also daily stayed after Mass until all had left and straightened up the stack of programs that people had returned to the windowsill). Lesley says that one day they were walking down the hall together and Francis took Lesley’s hand and found it cold. So she immediately took off her knitted neck scarf that she frequently wore and wrapped it around Lesley’s hand and told her to keep it. There have been only two comments posted on the web when her death was announced. One recalls taking a poetry workshop with Francis who was then 94. She records her experience of Sister Francis thus: “bent over her walker, learning new things, and looking out for others.”
Also written on Francis’ heart was a great love for Eucharist and not to have Eucharist daily was a real hardship for her. A well-known story is that of Sister Suzanne Dailey finding her walking across the bridge over the Wabash. She was walking back from town. We don’t know all the details, but she had prevailed on someone to take her to town for Saturday evening Mass and probably assured this person that she could find a ride home. However, she must not have been able to find a ride and so started to walk home. And Sister Joni Luna relates that she once intersected with her on the East Door parking lot. Francis was standing there, waiting for someone to pull out so that she could wave them down and ask them to take her into town for Mass. Joni obliged and after Mass, they even went to a Mexican restaurant together.
A few weeks before she died, I was visiting with her. When we finished our visit, I asked her if I could do anything for her. “I want to go to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel,” she said. “I walked over there the other day but before I got there, someone caught up with me and told me I had to go back.” So I signed her out of Mother Theodore West and took her there. When I returned to pick her up about a half hour later, she expressed gratitude over and over.
Now, dear Sister Francis, you are experiencing the real presence of your beloved God. Thank you for your years of determined and persistent dedication, following the covenant of love that Our God has written on your heart.
Funeral services for Sister Francis took place on Wednesday, March 11, and Thursday, March 12, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
A Wake took place from 2:30-4:30 p.m., with Vespers at 4:30 p.m., on Wednesday, March 11. Mass of Christian Burial took place at 11 a.m., on Thursday, March 12.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Francis in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions in Sister Francis’ honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Francis Edwards
In Illinois: Teacher, Maternity BVM, Chicago (1945-47).
In Indiana: Library, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1947); Teacher, St. Catherine, Indianapolis (1948-50); Teacher, St. Anthony, Indianapolis (1950-52); Teacher, St. John Academy, Indianapolis (1952-55); Teacher, St. Rose High School, Vincennes (1955-59); Teacher, St. Agnes Academy, Indianapolis (1959-66); Teacher, Evansville Reitz Memorial High School, Evansville (1966-68); Teacher, Ladywood High School, Indianapolis (1968-69); Teacher, Ladywood-St. Agnes, Indianapolis (1971-72); Librarian, Providence Cristo Rey High School, Indianapolis (2006-08); Staff, Office of Records, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2008-11); Residential Service/Owens Hall Library, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2011-15); Residential Service, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2015).
In Missouri: Teacher, John F. Kennedy, Manchester (1969-71).
In Oklahoma: Teacher, McGuiness, Oklahoma City (1971-77); Librarian, McGuiness, Oklahoma City (1978-79).
In California: Librarian, St. Genevieve, Panorama City (1979-91); Librarian, Cantwell/Sacred Heart of Mary, Montebello (1991-94); Assistant Librarian, St. John Seminary College, Camarillo (1994-97); Assistant Librarian, Notre Dame High School, Sherman Oaks (1998-99).
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A year or so ago I went to SMW for a poetry workshop. Sister Francis, then 94, was in the workshop. Bent over walker, learning new things and looking out for others. I hope to be like her as the years go by.
I am sad to learn that Sister Frances Bernard has left us. I am happy that she is with her beloved. She taught Geometry at St. Agnes in Indianapolis when I was there. She was a true blue through and through Sister of Providence.