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A 2021 Reflection for our Senior Jubilee

Note: General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski offered this reflection to the 2020 and 2021 Jubilarians on Wednesday, December 8, 2021.

As we gather together to once again celebrate our senior jubilarians, I am reminded of Peter’s words to Jesus at the transfiguration: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

It does bear repeating, doesn’t it? IT IS GOOD FOR US TO BE HERE! (Whether that be in this room or via Livestream or Closed Circuit). I am sorry that some of you have had to wait a year for this celebration, and I hope that makes today even more special.

And I am remembering Winnie Sullivan in a special way, one of the 75-year jubilarians we honor today, who most probably would have been watching this liturgy from her room in health care. Her death just a few days ago saddens us, until we remember she is now watching from a place prepared by our Provident God where she is truly free from her suffering. Rest in peace, dear Winnie.

Another thought or line that has been playing in my head as I reflected about our jubilarians comes from a rather contemporary Christmas song entitled, “Mary, did you know?” I actually have Jubilarian Marie McCarthy to thank for that. As my new housemate, Marie has been practicing that song on the piano that now graces our home.

“Mary, did you know … that your baby boy
Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know … that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?”

Did the Mary we met in the Gospel of Luke today, the Mary who responded to the angel’s message, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” really know to what she was saying yes? Could she even fathom the joys and sorrows that would come in being the mother of this remarkable and often confounding Jesus?

If the scholarship of theologian Elizabeth Johnson is to be believed, Mary did not know. She did not follow Jesus about as a disciple during his ministry.

Johnson makes the case that Mary’s discipleship flourished following the Pentecost event. Johnson writes: “As part of the community that was gathered in Jesus’ name, this older Jewish woman, marked by the struggles of a hard life, receives a new outpouring of the Spirit of God and raises her voice again in inspired praise and prophecy.”

(front, from left) Sister Mary Lois Hennel, Sister Ruth Johnson, Sister Ann Casper and Sister Dorothy Gartland during the 2021 Jubilee Luncheon.

And Johnson says, it is because of Mary’s discipleship following Jesus’ death and resurrection that Luke casts her as “an exemplary disciple from the Annunciation on. … She is someone who heard the word of God and kept it.” Someone who heard the word of God and kept it.

Johnson characterizes Mary’s life as a walk with the Spirit at a pivotal moment in salvation history and because of that walk Mary made a unique contribution to the good of the world. And because of her walk with the Spirit, she is sister to all who respond to the gift of the Spirit in their own lives – like our own jubilarians.

And so, we might say to our jubilarians today … did you know what you were getting yourselves into when you responded to the word of God and the gift of the Spirit moving within you 80, 75, 70 and 60 years ago?

I doubt if Sister Mary Roger (Madden) knew back in 1940 when she entered, that she would live to be 100, let alone 101. (Amazingly, that doesn’t even make her the oldest disciple in this community!) And that included in the 81 years of her life devoted to the mission of Providence, would be the writing of the “Path Marked Out,” chronicling the years of 1890-1926 of the community’s history.

I suspect that most of you jubilarians expected to be teachers of some kind or another when you entered, but how many of you knew what you might end up teaching or where, or that you would become principals, and in some cases, superiors at the same time.

(From left) Sister Barbara Reder, Sister Lawrence Ann Liston and Sister Cathy Buster at the Jubilee Luncheon.

And like Mary, was not your world turned upside down by events that you hardly dreamed possible – Vatican Council II, for instance? Suddenly new calls came that took you from your classroom to parishes, hospitals and clinics, campuses, the streets, the desert, even prison.

Many of you have responded to the call to be leaders – within our SP community, for sure, but in other communities and situations as well, serving as administrators of health care facilities, directors of ministries and programs, movers and shakers of the word of God. We even have a prioress in this group!

Most of you went back to school in some shape or form and learned new ways of being Providence. As I read through each of your ministry records – and I thank Sister Rosemary Schmalz for that – I found myself wondering things like, “Why CPE after long-time ministry as a medical technologist? Why hospice when you had been teaching first grade?

How is it that upon reaching an age when others were thinking of retirement, many of you began another adventure – moved to Taiwan, started tutoring adults, learned Reiki, tried your hand at fiber arts, translation and on and on. And so many of you have mastered what was written on one ministry record as: The pastoral ministry of presence.

As I read each of your walks with the Spirit, I found myself thinking, as Elizabeth Johnson writes of Mary, there are so many “lessons of encouragement” flowing from your lives.

Often what encouraged me most was how you faced those moments that were fraught with suffering or loss – caring for an ill family member, having to let go of a beloved ministry, or struggling with serious and debilitating illnesses yourself.

Thank you for the encouragement of your lives.

Like Mary whose unique vocation included but was not limited to mothering the Messiah, you have kept yourselves open to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit of God throughout your lives.

(Clockwise, from left) Sister Betty Hopf, Sister Jody O’Neil, Sister Kay Manley, Sister Noralee Keefe and Sister Carol Nolan enjoy conversation prior to the 2021 Jubilee Luncheon.

And, I suspect that the Spirit isn’t finished with you yet. Look at Mary. Johnson seems to suggest that her greatest moments came after her son died, when she was an older woman.

We probably will never really understand all the circumstances of Mary’s life once that angel left her, but we do know that she became for the early church and for centuries of people since then an example of what radical trust in God looks like. No wonder our Mother Theodore Guerin advised: “Who has ever perished that entrusted herself to Mary? Take her as your model on the way.”

So I ask you, jubilarians to continue to be that model for us on our way. Continue to make your unique contribution to the good of the world.

And what might that look like at this point in your lives? Here’s a thought …

One of my companions during the pandemic has been the Louise Penny murder mysteries – the Chief Inspector Gamache Series. One of the regular characters is an artist named Clara Morrow. In Book Seven of the series, Clara finally has a breakthrough exhibition of her paintings that includes a portrait of Ruth Zardo. Ruth is a curmudgeon of a poet who lives in the Canadian Village of Three Pines where all the action takes place.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, the portrait depicts Ruth as the aged Virgin Mary. Listen to the author’s description of this Mary:

“Elderly. Abandoned by a world weary and wary of miracles. A world too busy to notice the stone rolled back.”
The description continues: “But there was something else. A vague suggestion in those weary eyes. Not even seen really. More a promise. A rumor in the distance.
“Amid all the brush strokes, all the elements, all the color and nuance in the portrait, it came down to one tiny detail. A single white dot.
“In her eyes.
“Clara Morrow had painted the moment despair became hope.”

I’m counting on you/we’re counting on you, jubilarians, to continue to bring hope.

I certainly hope that you don’t feel abandoned like Louise Penny’s Virgin Mary. But we do live in a world that is often too busy to notice the stone rolled back, in a world wearied by COVID, by racism, by indifference to the suffering of our planet and its people.

In the midst of this world, we need women like you to continue to welcome the outpouring of the Spirit of God, to walk with that spirit for the sake of the life of the world. We will look for the single white dot of hope in your eyes to help keep us faithful to the words of our beloved Mother Theodore:

“But our hope is in the providence of God, which has protected us until the present, and which will provide, somehow, for our future needs …”

And finally:

“… Ours is the preparation for the generation that will succeed us, and eminent good will be done this way by us. You may not live to see it, but you will have sown the seed, and your Sisters will come to reap what will have been sown.”

Please jubilarians, keep sowing hope.

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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