Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Gentle Witness

Here is an article of mine originally published in the May/June 2007 Canticle Magazine.

"A Gentle Witness"

Some of the greatest souls are those unknown to the world, whose loving influence has, nevertheless, far-reaching effects. There is a painting of the Visitation showing Saint Elizabeth with arms open wide to welcome the Blessed Virgin. The representation of Elizabeth always reminded me of a Visitandine nun, Mother Mary Paula, a petite, slightly bent frame, shrouded with a veil, vibrant with the Holy Spirit.

My first teaching job was at the Visitation Academy in Frederick, Maryland. I would come to regard Mother as a spiritual mentor, from the simple truths she imparted in her words and by her life. I learned by example the power of gentleness, as promoted by the teaching of Saint Frances de Sales, founder of the Visitation Order, who said: “Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

The Frederick Visitation had been educating young ladies since 1846; it was a boarding school, and in the mid-1980’s still functioned as such. Most of the boarders were Mexican girls; there would be about twenty of them and the other hundred or so girls were day students, grades pre-K to 8. The school adjoined the cloister and both were surrounded by a high wall, so the academy was essentially in a monastery garden under the shelter of ancient trees. There were about five sisters left in the monastery; three were actively teaching. When advised to close the Academy, Mother Mary Paula would reply with the words Saint Joan of Arc uttered in another equally desperate situation: “You have taken your counsel, and I have taken mine….” The sisters ran the school for another twenty years, a decade after Mother’s death.

Mother Mary Paula was a steel magnolia. From a Baltimore family of Irish descent, she had a soft face and a gentle lilting voice. To see her sparkling eyes at Mass behind the choir grate at the Elevation of the Host was to share for a moment with her a glimpse beyond the veil of time. Her practicality in dealing with the children never failed to amaze me. She told me once, “The world is a frightening place for little ones. I want this school to be one place where they can feel safe and happy.” And she succeeded in her task. To a pouting child she would say, “If the devil can’t make you bad, then he will try to make you sad.” If a girl was crying she would say, “Let’s go to Mother Mary’s house.” Mother Paula would put her arm around the student and they would stand in front of a statue of the Virgin, and explain the problem, whatever it was. Blessed Mother always helped.

Mother Mary Paula was the soul of truth, and yet there were times I knew she was using mental reservation in dealing with certain willful young ladies. One late November there was a light, slushy snow, mostly ice, but the Mexican boarders, who had never seen any kind of frozen precipitation, wanted to romp in it. Mother was afraid they would get wet, cold, and sick, and so she said, “Girls, this isn’t real snow. It just looks like snow.” The girls crept outside anyway, slid joyfully through the slush, and yes, many were feverish and sneezing the following day.

Then there was the case of the girl I will call “Sage.” Sage was one of the most notorious mischief makers in the history of the Academy. She was not malicious, only constantly disruptive in class. At the end of the year, the sisters would distribute awards, usually some homemade stuffed animals. Every single child received a prize, the Visitation being the Visitation. As Mother Mary Paula distributed the gifts, she would say, “Now so-and-so has been very obedient this year….” She described each girl along the same lines, obedient and polite. Then it was Sage’s turn to receive her gift. Now even the naughtiest of the boarders had had moments of obedience and politeness, but everyone held their breath over Sage. They all knew that Sage had been completely recalcitrant. Was Mother Mary Paula about to tell a lie?

“Well, Sage, we made it through this year, and we’ll make it through next year.” An audible tension lifted from the room. Mother’s integrity was saved.

In her last years, Mother saw the Visitation flourish with an increase of students, while growing numbers of lay people and seminarians used the chapel for First Friday devotions and daily Mass. The Academy became a thriving center of genuine Catholic spirituality. Once, I was with Mother in the chapel, a masterpiece of grandeur and simplicity, with the stained glass windows, carved wooden columns and marble high altar.

“Do you see this chapel, Mary?” she asked. “The sisters who built this chapel did not even have money for food. But they had faith, great faith. All we have to do is pay a few bills; out of nothing they built this masterpiece which gives glory to God.”

With the burden of age and pressures of running the school weighing upon her, Mother’s health eventually gave way. She bore her last illness with serenity and had to be hospitalized, but towards the end they brought her home. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was in progress and as they brought her through the chapel; she turned and gazed upon Our Lord in the monstrance with the most radiant expression. She died on the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1996. To be the Bride of Christ is to be a spiritual mother; the little nun had been a true mother to so many.

I often recite Mother Mary Paula’s prayer with the girls whom I teach. She prayed it before every class.

Dear Jesus, please help us with our lessons. Help us to use our lessons for you, and everything else we do. And make us grow in wisdom, age, and grace like you. And make our hearts like yours. And make us good housekeepers like Our Blessed Mother, and grant us your peace. Amen.



Julianne Douglas said...

I attended the Academy of the Visitation in St. Louis, MO, and can attest to the spirit of gentleness and devotion that reigned there, too. I thank God continually for the gift of an education that placed Him at the center of all things and for spiritual guidance of those great yet humble saints, Francois de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal. St. Francois, as patron saint of writers, has certainly heard from me many times since! {s}

Brantigny said...

When we lived in Califonia and my youngest was about 4, we sused to take her to The Regina Residence, a retirement community of the Sisters of St Joseph, (of Orange). There was a very old Sister there named Sr Gertrude, she was about
90. She always thought I was one of her former pupils come to visit her. I would not try after the first few attemps to dissuade her.
She had a little tricycle with a motor on it to get around in. She would take my daughter around in it to visit the convent. Sr had been a Nun since 16 years old. She wore her wedding ring and awaited the day when she would be reunited with her spouse. She was and is a great source of joy for me.

de Brantigny

Unknown said...

That is my brother and I in the photo with her. We have so many great memories of the visitation we would spend every summer there for summer camp.

Unknown said...

That is my brother and I in that photo with her. We would spend every summer there growing up. They adopted my mother and aunt when they were young ladies when there parents had passed away. We always saw her as our grandmother. Im crying happy tears right now I never knew this photo existed thank you so much for posting it

elena maria vidal said...

That's wonderful! I remember you all. I hope everyone in your family is well!

elena maria vidal said...

so glad you found my blog, honey!