Sister Mary Margaret O’Hara

Written on: June 20, 2011

The following remembrance was delivered by Sister Kay Purser at the funeral liturgy on June 24, 2011

The invitation of the prophet Hosea, that we just heard – “Come, let us return to the Lord … On the third day the Lord will raise us up to live in the presence of the Lord.” This invitation came to fruition on Monday when Mary Margaret quietly, unexpectedly and peacefully joined her God, her God who gifted her with life 81 years ago, who was by her side every moment of every day, and who called her to the fullness of life this week. How blessed she was!

I share with you today some thoughts that Mary Margaret shared with me and excerpts from some of her written work. Her blessing began when she was born in Fort Erie, Canada the 3rd child of Joseph and Isabelle O’Hara. Mary Margaret cherished her Canadian roots. She credits her mother, who lived for others and was a model of faith and of love for God, as one who shaped her life in a profound way. Mrs. O’Hara wanted what was best for each of her five children and did what it took to see that they got it. She was tough in her demands of their behavior, schooling and, above all, in the practice of their faith. Her mother gave everything and demanded the best of her children. She always had room at the table for the needy passerby who needed food. In Mary Margaret’s early years, she was active in sports and other activities. Her mother was always there for her children whenever they came home and very interested in everything they were involved in. Mrs. O’Hara’s faith and love of God, her love for her children, her concern for the needy, her high expectations and willingness to help make the expectations a reality are hallmarks of Mary Margaret’s lifetime work in community and ministry.

There were other people and events in Mary Margaret’s early life that helped shape the direction her life took. While in 6th Grade, her class read an excerpt from Call of the Wild by Jack London. She was so touched by this that she couldn’t wait to get to the library and read every book on animals. Thus were planted the seeds of her love of all living creatures. As an aside, I remember hearing that at one of the Earth Committee meetings a few years ago, there was a discussion about what a nuisance the geese on the motherhouse property were. And whom do you think spoke up for the geese? … Even though many of the committee members were in accord about doing something to get rid of the geese, it was Mary Margaret spoke up for the geese as God’s creatures.

Mary Margaret was a woman who absorbed all that was happening around her, adapting to the needs of the day, listening and being drawn to all that resonated with her deepening beliefs on faith and life. Learning of Marguerite D’Youville from her sister, Helen, and from her college days at D’Youville, Mary Margaret focused in who Marguerite was and what her mission was, so much so that Marguerite became someone whom she admired and wanted to follow. Entering the Grey Nuns after graduating from college where she majored in economics, she was asked to teach economic geography and American History to the novices. Being Canadian, she never had an American history class. She prepared well and was proud of the fact that she could stay one day ahead of her students! Mother Jane Frances was one of her mentors who taught her that you could speak the truth and be respected. She also taught Mary Margaret to be grateful for the small things of life, especially the things we take for granted.

Sister Mary Raphael, her first principal and superior at Holy Angels in Buffalo, with her devotion and love of the poor, her simplicity of lifestyle, and her thoughtfulness and generosity to others, especially the poor, was another shining example and role model for Mary Margaret.

One of her early missions was Our Lady of Fatima School in Jackson Heights, New York. New York was an exciting place for her, exposing her to subways, sky scrapers and Broadway, a far cry from her Fort Erie beginnings. She told stories of the subway riders and how she was conscious of the cultural diversity and the poor among the riders, experiencing a small cosmos of the world community there.

Her next mission in Atlanta is where Mary Margaret and I both taught the upper level students at Christ the King (where, I would add, some of her students were taller than she was). It was during this time that Mary Margaret became aware of marches taking place in Selma, Alabama, the riots in the city, and the death of Martin Luther King. The mayor of Atlanta and the editor of the Atlanta Constitution were two people she paid special attention to, feeling that their outlook, writings and handling of events saved Atlanta from far worse catastrophes. This was also around the time of Vatican II, when Archbishop Hallinan of Atlanta was the pusher and mainstay of change in Atlanta to be followed by Bishop Bernadine. It was an exciting time in the church and a time when the people of God were finally acknowledged as the Church. Your conscience was your guide and you were responsible for your actions.

After a few years of teaching at Christ the King, she was appointed principal there. This was when she began to realize her administrative abilities. She developed justice curricula, sent teachers to justice workshops and empowered teachers to develop their potential, all for the sake of the students. Can we not say that she was ahead of her time? …She remained faithful to her focus on justice throughout her life. She was amazed and proud of her administrative experiences.

Another pivotal role model was Sister Helen Dorothy who helped Mary Margaret to see life more clearly and worked together with her to make help shape her future.

All of these role models and events are the seeds of Mary Margaret’s growth in her relationship with her God with whom she had deep trust, with the needy whom she loved, and with all of creation. They are the basis of her living out the beatitudes which so aptly describe how she tried to live her life. When she lived in subsidized housing in New Jersey when she was semi-retired and then retired, there was a meeting of all the tenants where they were asked to write down on a symbol they were given one word or phrase that was important to them. What would ea of us have written? … Mary Margaret wrote: “Love is the answer.” She hung that symbol in her apartment, brought it to the Motherhouse and then to St. Joseph’s Manor as a constant reminder of her focus.

I personally believe that Marguerite D’Youville’s life of universal charity was personified in Mary Margaret, who was always ready and willing to share Marguerite’s life in any way she could. At the end of her years as principal at Marian High School in Michigan, she told the School Board that she preferred, as a parting gift, that a scholarship be established in honor of Marguerite. She wanted the students to know who Marguerite is and to emulate her. A scholarship has been awarded for a number of years now.

This woman whom we honor today was a mentor to many in the areas of peace and social justice as well as environmental consciousness. In 1980 when addressing an NCEA Leadership for Justice and Peace conference, she began by saying “The challenge of justice education is the challenge of today and tomorrow ‘To choose life so that we may truly live.’ She went on to say “My past experience of 25 years in education, and especially the past 9 years as principal, are hopefully only the beginnings of a search for the possibility of living more significantly different, more creatively and freely, more responsibly, though maybe more painfully, in order, as a world, to bring to actuality a whole new social order.” Mary Margaret, thank you for this challenge that you have given to all of us.

Risk taking was a normal part of Mary Margaret’s life. Whether she was walking a picket line or speaking against proliferation of weapons at a shareholder’s meeting or making personal decisions about healthcare issues, she did so with faith, prayer, determination and conviction. And in every instance, she felt God’s presence. She spoke of the time when she went to the nuclear test site in Nevada and crossed the line and really didn’t know what was going to happen next. She felt God’s presence and a peace that settled within her.

Mary Margaret’s happiest years may have been her years in retirement in Asbury Park, where she lived in subsidized housing, served as the president of the tenant’s association, was active in the Central New Jersey Coalition for Peace and justice, active also in a breast cancer support group and most important of all, was free to help anyone and everyone she ran into who was in need. She drove people to the doctors, she picked up their medicine, and she called residents’ children to update them on their mother’s health, whatever was needed. Nothing was an inconvenience and nothing was too much for her or too low for her. She genuinely loved each of them as brother or sister. Whenever I went to visit her in Asbury Park, it seemed that everyone in her building, in her neighborhood, in all the local stores and her church knew her and smiled and called her by name whenever she ran into them … and she in turn was asking about their family members.

It was during these later years that she was so faithful to sending cards to those who were celebrating a special occasion, who were sick or grieving or in rehab. Grey Nuns, friends, relatives, neighbors, and church members were all touched by her thoughtfulness.

Still very much interested in people when she moved to St. Joseph’s Manor, Mary Margaret began her ministry there of visiting the other residents on her floor and participating in activities. Again, everyone there knew who she was and she called each by name and she was always proud to introduce her visitors to the staff..

Mary Margaret, you were a woman who searched the depths of your soul to find God and then used every ounce of your energy to do God’s work, without discrimination of any kind. You taught us so much about life, about justice, about the environment, about selflessness, about focusing, and many other things both by your words and even more so by your actions. You were our conscience, calling us to remember what we promised and what God asks of us, whether we were ready to hear it or not. You were small of stature and mighty in deed. Thank you for having the courage of your convictions, for being sister to each of us, and living life to the fullest with integrity and joy.

It has been an honor and a privilege for me to call Mary Margaret friend and to have learned so much from her. Thank you for the opportunity to share this eulogy with you.

We join together with our God in saying, “Well done, Mary Margaret, good and faithful friend, now enter the place prepared for you for all eternity.”

One thought on “Sister Mary Margaret O’Hara

  1. Mary Peppe says:

    I have never forgotten this feisty, diminutive champion of all things good. She took on a Principal’s position at a school in New Brunswick; St. Peter’s, which has since closed. I managed a bank branch and, she became my client and friend. And, that happened through our mutual love of animals. Sr. Mary Margaret had 2 Siamese cats that, if she travelled, I would cat-sit for. We kept in touch for MANY years until I moved on and we lost touch with each other.
    This beautiful woman will forever live in my heart.

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