Written on: October 24, 2012
Maureen Cecilia Egan was born May 25, 1926, the fourth child and first daughter of James Egan and Cecilia Grogan Egan and sister to 3 older brothers Bernard, Thomas F. and James. Imagine – she had the unique position of being a middle child, and yet the oldest daughter – in an Irish, Catholic, tight-knit family – native New Yorkers! (and Rockaway Beach) She attended school at St. Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights, and graduated from Bishop McDonnell Memorial high school in Brooklyn, 1940. Her childhood was spent in Corona and Jackson Heights, and she was proud of her New York heritage.
In 1946, after working for several years, she decided to enter the GNSH. In his letter of recommendation, her pastor wrote in part: “Maureen has been a daily communicant for many years; she has a deep faith and exemplifies her love of God in her daily life always without excessive show. She is intelligent, serious, and at the same time delightfully cheerful and companionable.” Those were the very qualities she brought to her life and mission as a Grey Nun:
A native New Yorker, she spent all but 3 years of ministry close to where she grew up. For 46 years she taught first grade in Jackson Heights and Corona area schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn: in Corona at St. Leo’s, 1952-54 and 1958-69; in Jackson Heights at Blessed Sacrament, 1954-58; at Our Lady of Fatima, 1969–87; and St Joan of Arc, 1987-98. She also served on the Diocesan Language Arts and Linguistics Committees during that time and was proficient in American Sign Language.
Over the course of those 46 years, Sister James Maureen was legendary for her expertise in the classroom. She was an expert with a pair of scissors, and could cut letters, shapes or outlines for any size bulletin board or festive occasion. She taught many of us the art of cutting letters, something we remember to this day.
As a teacher, she was renowned for her use of paper “bottle caps” for numerous classroom activities; any teacher lucky enough to inherit her class found them well-schooled in all the basics, and still equipped with a set of bottle caps for reference. Another thing that sticks in my memory was her knack for getting kids’ attention, and making them march – The Grand Old Duke of York being one of her favorite songs… and with her kids in tow, she “marched them up a very high hill…. And she marched them down again.”
Her life had its share of hills, and of valleys like us all. She never let the size of the hill deter her. She knew there was always another hill to climb, and she never tried to climb it by herself. She always knew there would be others who needed a boost more than she did – and she sought them out, in the poor, the handicapped, the deaf, the elderly. The Administrator of a nursing home once saw her on her rounds of the neighborhood and remarked, “There goes our Mother Theresa of Jackson Heights.”
How fitting the first reading which she chose from Isaiah: You who have no money, come and eat and drink; come, listen to me- listen as I speak in your silent language – listen, that you might live. The work of her hands truly became a language of love for all.
And the gospel of the children – she indeed had a lifelong love affair with children. In 2005, one of the classes from St. Leo’s celebrated their 35th reunion – 35th anniversary of grade school graduation. Only 3 of their original Grey Nun teachers were still around to celebrate with them. Sister James Maureen was the life of the party – we stayed until it broke up around 1:30 am, during which time she had personally spoken to every former student present, and danced with each of them at least once.
One of the first messages I received after I posted the notice of her death was from a man who was at that reunion, but was never taught by her. Nonetheless, he visited her several times after that at Our Lady of Fatima. He wrote in part:
“I went to visit Sister James Maureen several years ago at Our Lady of Fatima, East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. Sister was very warm and was eager to know about me and my life at age 56 even though I was not in her classroom in first grade (though we are from the same graduating class of 1969!) She seemed very interested in how we grew up in Corona and our families and was proud to be a part of it all in the St Leos experience!
She had a very sharp mind, remembering details I am sure I could not back up now from the sixties! I was honored to have known her and those who taught us in St Leo’s at our gathering reunion in 2005. She will be missed -I was happy to have had some quality time meeting her in person after our great reunion May she rest in peace! She seems to have touched many hearts.
Those same sentiments were repeated in many of the messages that came in: She cared about us as people, she cared about our families, she never lost interest in us once she knew us. She touched the hearts of all who knew her.
In 1977 Sister James Maureen was interviewed in a teacher profile for the Brooklyn Tablet. In response to the question “what is your philosophy of life” she quoted the familiar Quaker saying “I expect to pass through this life but once; any good therefore that I can do or any kindness I can show to my fellow creatures, let me not deter it nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Doesn’t that sound just like her? Always in motion, always moving forward. Always marching. Quietly.
After retiring from the classroom in 1998, her “volunteer work” expanded to become her full time ministry. She continued to serve God’s people through ministry to the deaf and mentally challenged as she had done for many years. She received a Diocesan Award in recognition of her pastoral work with the deaf. She prepared and signed Masses for the deaf,* and was visitor and Eucharistic Minister to the elderly and homebound. She volunteered at Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home in New York City, Rosary House retirement home and the Food Pantry in Our Lady of Fatima parish in Jackson Heights.
Sister James Maureen was an intrepid driver. (Shall I just stop there???) She knew more of the streets of NY than many of the city planners, and knew her way around before the superhighways and expressways made navigating the city “easy”. She knew the policemen and baggage handlers (and they knew her), and just the right place to pick you up at LaGuardia to avoid the crowds – at departure for arrivals, and arrivals for departures. She was the only one who could park on the sidewalks of Jackson Heights and come away without a ticket!
She loved music and she loved to dance… and unlike many of us, she could do the steps (backward or forward) without falling down. (One of her partner’s called her “smooth”.) It’s been said that she taught her brothers how to dance, and I’m told that in later years as part of her pastoral ministry at Rosary House she delighted in teaching square dancing to mostly Chinese and Korean residents, to the great delight of all. Each session ended with singing of the “golden oldies” and invariably closed with a rousing rendition of It’s a Grand Ole Flag or God Bless America. And when the dancers had dispersed, it was time for her to continue her rounds of bringing communion to the sick and comfort to the bedridden. …You who have no money, come and eat and drink; come, listen to me- listen, that you might live.”
When she arrived at the Motherhouse to stay, someone asked her how she would manage the transition, and her response was simply, “you know, you have to make your life wherever you are.” And so she continued in her quiet way, immersing herself in the Motherhouse community – with great skill and humor at the card table, and as a force to be reckoned with at the pool table – as a photographer — taking particular joy in giving others mementos of their celebrations to store in their memory books – as a visitor to the sick, and to the residents of D’Youville Manor, as an office aide, in writing small personal notes on the bottom of thank you letters to donors – little touches of life made possible because she cared and was aware that there was a need, and she could do something to make things better, or easier for someone else.
So in a way, nothing changed since 1946: “Maureen has been a daily communicant for many years; she has a deep faith and exemplifies her love of God in her daily life always without excessive show. She is intelligent, serious, and at the same time delightfully cheerful and companionable.” She truly loved being a Grey Nun; and she was thankful for the chance to live as one; we are grateful she chose to live most of her life with us. And in that spirit of thankfulness for a life full lived and full loved, I close with the quote she used on her golden jubilee program in 1996; it’s called An Irish Creed –
Wit is something to treasure,
charm is something to live,
Peace is something to keep,
love is something to give,
Joy is something to feel,
trust is something to find,
God is the one to thank,
from now ‘til the end of time.
We thank you, Provident God, for the life and quiet witness of our sister Maureen. May she now rest in peace with you and all her Grey Nun sisters forever. Amen.
Sister Mary Lee Farrell, GNSH