Sister Emily Walsh (formerly Sister Mary Francine)
A reading from the Gospel of John (14:1-6)
Jesus knew his hour had come to depart this life and go to the Father. During the supper he said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”
The gospel of the Lord.
This morning, we celebrate Sister Emily’s safe arrival at the place Jesus has prepared for her. If we share Thomas’ question, “How can we know the way,” we can learn a lot from her life of faithful dedication, said Sister Maureen Abbott in her commentary for Sister Emily Walsh, formerly Sister Mary Francine, who passed away on Tuesday, January 26, 2021, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 90 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 68 years.
Sister Maureen continued: Sister Emily was born Mary Emily Walsh on September 21, 1930, in Saginaw, Michigan, to Charles Walsh and Frances Wolfarth Walsh, just 15 minutes after her identical twin sister, Leona Marie. Sadly, this double pregnancy proved too much for their mother, who died nine days later. Her aunt Leona stepped in to help their father with the care of 2-year-old Frank and in the infant twins. While we can’t really understand what it would be like to grow up with an identical twin, that deep level of mutual love and support obviously enabled them to become the women we remember so fondly.
After attending elementary and high schools in Saginaw, the twins followed the path of other family members to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. The family’s long association with the Woods began when Emily’s great-aunt Octavia Guenin entered the Congregation way back in 1883 with the name of Sister Francis Cecile. Both twins graduated with bachelor’s degrees in French in 1952. To celebrate their graduation, their Aunt Leona took them to Europe on the Queen Mary.
Emily entered the Congregation on July 22, 1952, and professed first vows on January 23, 1955. Her first ministry assignment, as a first- and second-grade teacher at St. Joseph, Terre Haute, only lasted six months, but when she took on middle grade teaching at nearby St. Ann’s, she seemed to have found a niche, as it stretched into a seven-year assignment. She professed final vows on January 23, 1960.
When Emily was called for Providence High School, Clarksville, in 1962, another name on that list was Sister Leona Walsh. Both began summer studies in library science at Catherine Spalding University across the river in Louisville. The following year, Leona moved on to Ladywood, while Emily continued dividing her energies between teaching and gaining practical library experience at Providence. Both received their Master of Science in Library Sciences in 1967.
Now well prepared, Emily began an eight-year term as administrator of the library at The Immaculata during the exciting post-Vatican era. Summers were opportunities for Leona to join her to enjoy the cultural offerings of the Washington, D.C., area. With Sister Ann Margaret O’Hara also part of The Immaculata community, it seems likely that this was the genesis of the “bridge club” era as well.
In 1975, Emily returned to her alma mater to become Administrator of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Library. Interestingly enough, there was a new hire at the library the following year: Sister Leona Walsh. Emily’s responsibilities included managing the budget and acquisitions, but she valued her time at the circulation desk. Arranging her work to provide regular service as a Eucharistic Minister for community liturgies was important to her. Commenting on the ministerial aspects of her work, she wrote: “I want to help, especially the poorer students. I am gratified by the goodness of many of their lives.” She was adept at helping new staff members pick up the Sisters of Providence culture of dedicated service. A staff colleague, Libby Maher, recalls, “During my three years at the library, we had the opportunity to share our lives with each other. Emily and Leona worried when it was their turn to cook at the Inn and they fretted over the menu. Despite the qualms about their cooking skills, Emily rose to the challenge when we had our Christmas cookie open house at the library. The specialty was a meringue cookie. Over the years, Emily remained closely involved with her family. Her brother would host the twins at Christmas at his home in Florida, so the family remained close.”
Emily’s niece, Rachael, remembers the great times they had together when she and her husband Mike would come to the Woods and spirit the twins away to their Michigan home. Mike loved to cook and entertain and make Emily laugh. They also enjoyed spending time at the family cabin, appropriately named “The Leona,” after their great-aunt. One of Emily’s favorite pastimes was sitting on the porch to watch for eagles and the many birds of the area. Settling in on the big comfortable couch to watch the summer Olympics was another fun memory. Her friend Libby comments, “It sounded like a lot of time was spent at the card table on those trips.”
When Sister Jenny Howard was admitted as a rookie to the elite bridge club, she was able to further their enthusiasm by arranging “bridge marathons” for Ellen, Ann Margaret, Emily and Leona at a friend’s condo at The Point. This friendship ripened to the point that Jenny felt comfortable inviting Emily and Leona to join one of the famous boundary waters wilderness camping trips. When Jenny broached the question, rather than taking time for the expected mutual consultation, Emily jumped right in. Her presence was a good omen, as this trip had the least amount of rainfall of any trip.
Emily enjoyed watching sports on television, ice skating in particular. Apparently, her childhood efforts to learn to skate had revealed ankles too weak to be a performer herself, but she could certainly admire those who could. Sharing Thanksgiving with Sister Paula Modaff’s family included football watching times when Emily endeared herself to everyone by her laughs and giggles. As Paula commented, “She had a special gift for getting people to love her.”
When she retired from her position at the college, Emily took charge of the Resource Center in Providence Hall, which at the time also included cataloging the materials in the library at Owens Hall and White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. Her favorite part of this 16-year volunteer ministry was chatting with the sisters who dropped by.
Her twin sister Leona’s death in 2010 surely was a terrible loss, but when Leona expressed herself “at peace” about her diagnosis, Emily deeply understood. Even as she grieved, she continued to cultivate an active interest in everyone else’s concerns. Paula Modaff describes her as a strong, strong woman, tender and compassionate. Her fun-loving side did not desert her. When a huge snowfall a few years ago inevitably drew the women in formation to sled in the ravine, Emily not only joined in the sledding but was able to walk upright to the top, leaving younger participants to hobble up the Grotto steps clinging to the railing. She enjoyed her beer, the real beer, not the light. When Sister Carol Nolan invited her to attend the Oktoberfest a couple of years ago, it was that great German dark beer that she ordered.
Her friend Libby tells how she continued to stay in touch with a wider circle. “For the past 10 years or more, the library gang continued to meet for lunch. When Emily could no longer meet with us in 2019, I began visiting in person and was able to keep her up-to-date with the gossip. Once the pandemic began, we mostly talked on the phone, but I was able to visit with her twice at the outdoor tent.” While in Lourdes Hall, Emily was among those who tested positive for COVID-19, but came through without any symptoms. However, she seemed more and more ready to graciously accept the invitation to share new life with Leona in heaven.
Emily, we will be ever grateful for your presence among us. Your sheer enjoyment of life shows how you took to Heart Jesus’ words about not letting your heart be troubled. We rejoice that you are now enjoying new life in the place Jesus prepared for you.
Funeral services for Sister Emily took place on Monday, February 8, 2021, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A virtual wake took place at 10:30 a.m., followed by funeral liturgy without Eucharist at 11 a.m.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Emily in the comment section below.
Memorial contributions may be made in honor of Sister Emily to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Sister Emily Walsh (formerly Sister Mary Francine)
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Joseph, Terre Haute (1952-55); Teacher, St. Ann, Terre Haute (1955-62); Teacher, Our Lady of Providence High School, Clarksville (1962-67); Library Administrator, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1975-92); Reference Librarian, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (1992-2001); Resource Center Staff/Office of Congregational Advancement, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2001-06); Resource Center Staff/Congregational Business Office Staff/Owens Hall Library, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2006-07); Resource Center/Owens Hall Library, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2007); Resource Center Coordinator/Owens Hall Library, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2007-11); Librarian, Providence Resource Center, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2012-17); Residential Services, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2017-2020); Prayer, Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (2020).
In Washington, D.C.: Library Administrator/Teacher, Immaculata Prep and College (1967-75).
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