Sister Mary Perpetua Andreoli

Written on: April 3, 2009

This reflection was delivered by Sister Mary Lee Farrell at the funeral liturgy on April 7,2009

Nothing can fill the gap 
When we are away from those we love and it would be 
Wrong to try to find anything 
Since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between 
Us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. 
God does not fill the gap but keeps it empty, so that our communion 
With another may be kept alive even at the cost of pain.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Unfilled Gap,” Letters and Papers from Prison, qtd. in John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (London: Bantam Press, 2003) 195.)

She was known to many of you as Sister Mary Perpetua Andreoli.  To her family she was known as daughter, sister, Mary Agnes, Sister, Sista, Sister Aunt Mary, (or perhaps Sister Agnes Marie.) Her friends called her: Mary, Perp, and for a brief while – using the jargon of the World War which raged in Europe during the time she was in the novitiate – some folks referred to her as simply “Snafu.” It was, I think, a nickname which bore testimony to her penchant for mixing things up. It was part of her characteristic self-deprecating humor which prompted her to tell me that.

Mary came to us from Lowell, and bore the teasing about her accent and with gracious humor – Her career in the elementary classroom spanned 20 years, with assignments from Ogdensburg, to Mahanoy City and Strafford, back to her beloved Lowell, and then to Queens and Jackson Heights. Along the way she made a host of lifelong friends whom she cherished, and supported with a passion– she often said to me “Perpetua(l) – permanent – like my name. I never give up on people.” Last night you heard mention of her absolute faithfulness to remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant occasions. And the cards were not just any card – they were always perfect.

By the late 60’s she had left the classroom to devote all of her time to piano lessons – A parlor in OLF convent was her “music room” where she imparted an understanding and love of music to hundreds of children and adults. She also developed a “hobby” of sorts by spending her “free time” visiting patients at Mary Manning Walsh Home in Manhattan, and then found time to complete a certificate in sign language. Just recently I heard sign language described poetically as “making music with the hands.” What a wonderful analogy for Mary’s last ministry of service to the deaf – talking to them with her hands, making music with her hands. So perhaps the theme today should be hands – magic hands – hands of music – hands to direct the voices of children – and hands of language to the deaf – hands to the needy among us who needed a hug or a pat of encouragement or just a sign of understanding in a silent world.

She loved Blue Grass soap and Alfred Dunner coordinates. She loved the ocean, lobsters, coffee and coffee ice cream, and all things New England – all things family – all things yellow, and yellow roses in particular. But the constant theme in her life was music. I met her (in 1957) when I was a somewhat shy 8th grader in a new school. She directed the grade school choir, and because I was a cantor for daily masses, I was the “big kid” who got to help her with the choir. I remember her in those days for her smile (Mary Tyler Moore) – “who can turn the world on with her smile…?” and for the way she could shift from sunny to stern within the beat of a song. “Straighten those shoulders” she would command. “Breathe from your diaphragm”…sing – I can’t hear you! Sing!” She was at once my teacher, my coach, my most severe critic, and my strongest support. She took every chance she got these last few months to nag me about taking piano lessons again…” and when will you sing for me again?”

Those who make music well pray twice, says Augustine. Multiply all the music of all her students over a lifetime – from the very first grade school child in the 1960’s to our very own Father Nevins who was her last student – the last straw, the last chord – in 2009– all the children in all the schools … times two! Truly several lifetimes of prayer!

Mary’s admirers – and that’s just about everyone who knew her–savor the miles we walked with her. Each of us has special incidents we have recalled these last few days, that we have recounted in quick, hall conversations and in lengthy table talks – we need to retell the stories of fun, of laughter, of caring, and always stories of music. “Music is the key to memory,” says composer Liam Lawton. For me, Mary and music will always be synonymous. We compiled a few of these memories that we believe best illustrate the unique personality that was Mary, and we shared those memories at the service last evening.

And like those disciples who were so long with Jesus and still did not understand, we will celebrate her Passover with her, lay her to rest and continue to Emmaus next week without her…we will wonder and discuss and ponder, and then return to wonder again at the great love of our God who share her with us for so long. We may not yet understand the stories, or the mystery of how Mary loved each one of us in such different ways, but we savor the stories, and keep them in our hearts. And as long as we have the stories, the memories, and the music in our hearts, we have Mary – Perp – Sista – Sister Aunt Mary with us.

And so, one last time…straighten your shoulders…breathe…and sing:

Quiet her soul, in your holy presence –
Gentle her soul, in your stillness and peace.
Tender her soul, in your mercy and grace.
God, give her comfort, and rest in peace.*

* adapted from Monica Brown’s mantra Quiet My Soul

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