Written on: August 14, 2008
Devoted, kind, faithful—and very tall! These are words heard time and time again from all who knew and loved Joan Marie Woods, Sister Michael Marie. Devoted to God and Our Lady, to her beloved family near and far, to the Church and to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. Kind to all she met—and that number was great as she never failed to find new friends wherever her path led each and every day of her 84 years. Faithful to prayer, especially the rosary, to her ministry and all of its tasks, and to concern for the community with conscientious obedience to all that was asked of her.
Sister Michael Marie was one of six children born to Michael and Mary Beirne Woods in Jackson Heights, New York. Michael and Mary clearly instilled in their children the love of God, of their roots in Ireland-specifically County Roscommon-and their “block” in Jackson Heights, highly populated as it was with family and friends. Michael and Mary generously gave three of their four daughters to the Grey Nuns in rapid succession: Joan, Imelda, and Pat, Sisters Michael Marie, Mary Dennis, and Mary Terence. While all three devoted themselves to their new community and the demands of prayer and ministry, no one who ever met them would doubt their continued closeness to each other and their family. I never knew Sister Mary Terence personally, but I can attest that it wasn’t possible to talk with Sister Michael Marie or Sister Mary Dennis for more than a minute or two without hearing news about some wonderful thing one of their brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, grand nieces or nephews had just accomplished. Their love of their family and pride in their achievements has no limits. I’m sure Aunt Joan is now proudly sharing their stories with all new friends she’s meeting in heaven!
Throughout her life, Sister Michael Marie was a committed and masterful teacher. She had a Bachelor of Science degree in education from D’Youville College, Buffalo, New York, did post-graduate studies at Sienna College, and held a permanent teaching certificate in New York State. With the exception of one year at Christ the King School in Atlanta, Georgia, she served as an educator and administrator in the Diocese of Brooklyn for 56 years. Although she spent only three years as superior and principal of Our Lady of Fatima School and left there in 1969, Sister James Maureen tells me that people there still inquire about “the tall principal” that they liked so well. Sister Elizabeth Dawn still fondly remembers the gently kindness Sister Michael showed her as her first superior when she left the novitiate.
Sister Michael taught at St. Joan of Arc School for 19 year and was missioned at her home parish of Blessed Sacrament for 34 years. Her patience and encouragement with her students proved fruitful for hundreds of lives. Zina gave me one example of this last night. She was talking with a woman with whom she now works and found that she was also from Jackson Heights and had attended Blessed Sacrament School. She was excited to learn that Zina was related to Sister Michael Marie and proceeded to tell this story: She was in third grade and having a very hard time in school. She was dyslexic and struggling with all her work. Sister Michael took her aside and told her, “If you’re willing to put your mind to it and work very hard, you can learn to do this. I’ll help you.” And help her she did, giving all kinds of extra time and gentle encouragement. This woman now has a very responsible job that involves lots of reading and includes doing accounts payable. She credits her success to Sister Michael Marie. This is just one of the countless students helped on their way by Sister’s solicitous care.
Sister Michael was just as well known for her gentle compassion toward the parents and families of students and people in the neighborhood. If a need was known, there Sister Michael was to reach out a helping hand. Everyone was within her circle of concern and, when not being served directly, still remembered in her heart and her prayers. Sister Kathleen Early, who knew Joan and her family from their childhood years together, recalls that she helped so many families in so many ways that people always asked her to be sure to tell “the tall Sister” that they were asking for her because they remembered her great kindness. Sister Kathleen remembers especially Joan’s kindness to her father. When he was 90 years old, his wife had a stroke in their apartment a block from the convent. At 5 a.m. he walked up the street, rang the convent bell, and told Joan he needed help. She came out with him, walked back to the apartment, called the ambulance, and called Sister Kathleen to let her know about her mother’s condition. He never forgot his gratitude to her!
Those who were at the wake service last night heard many family stories of Aunt Joan: her bear hugs and her love and concern for cousins, nieces and nephews, then grandnieces and nephews, her sense of humor, her love of candy, and the consistent presence at family events, along with Aunt Imelda. Whether in their home or when they met her on the street, they knew they could count on her welcoming embrace—and that they really wouldn’t be smothered in the folds of that big habit. And as Sister Maureen Quigley said, it was clear that in the eyes of their Grey Nun Aunts, everything the Woods children did-regardless of their age-was both exciting and great!
In her later years at Blessed Sacrament Sister Michael served in the school office and the library. In addition, she happily walked the neighborhood taking communion and warm conversation to those unable to get out to Mass. She was also well known for her regular attendance at the wakes and funerals of her extended family and ever-expanding circle of friends. In 2003 Sisters Michael Marie and Mary Dennis moved to the Motherhouse. They took their places in the activities of the house and spent much time together reaching out to the community and its guests. They also reached out to the residents of D’Youville Manor, going over to visit and to lead the rosary there on a regular basis.
This move didn’t interrupt their concern and attention to the activities of their family with whom they kept in touch via frequent telephone conversations, notes, and trips to New York whenever they were able. The Woods family members became known to many more Grey Nuns during their frequent visits to the Motherhouse and to St. Joseph’s Manor. Sisters Michael Marie and Mary Dennis became known to the staff and Sisters at both places as “the twins” because they were always together and so caring to each other.
Today as we stand together as Sisters, family and friends, we bid farewell for a time to Sister Michael Marie-Aunt Joan-and commend her into the loving arms of Mary who responded to her call to take her home to her loving Father in heaven on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. We thank God for the rich blessing she has been in all of our lives!