Written on: January 5, 2017
Sister Ruth Penska died on December 28, 2016, from complications of burns received in a fire on December 20th. The following words of remembrance were shared at her funeral liturgy on January 4, 2017.
If you would like to read the eulogy given by her nephew Thomas Penksa, Click Here
On September 8, 1967, fourteen young women traveled to Yardley, Pennsylvania to join the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. The fifteenth had already arrived in the area the night before, which the rest of us thought was weird. Why wouldn’t you stay home as long as you could? What we didn’t know was that that was an indication of Ruth’s firm conviction that the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart was where she belonged. When Ruth joined the Grey Nuns, she was absolutely certain that this was her calling in life. At least eight years of preparation was required, but Ruth would have none of that. She wanted to take her final vows right away. No waiting eight years for her! She talked about it so often that we gave it a name: speed nunning. The trouble was that it didn’t exist, and there was no way Ruth could persuade anyone to change to it.
Sadly, there was not only no speed nunning for Ruth, but not even the usual length of time. While she was still in the novitiate, she had to leave the community temporarily in order to care for her mother. Her return a year later meant that her profession, rather than being sped up, was delayed by a year. I think it was one of the heaviest crosses of her life.
That attitude of conviction stayed with her her entire life. When she made a decision, that was it. When she was convinced of something, there was no changing her mind. She loved to discuss and debate, but only to show you that she was right, not to think about new ways of looking at something. If you disagreed with her ideas, you learned pretty quickly not to talk about that topic in the hopes of helping her see things differently.
Ruth was that unusual sister who attended public elementary school and high school; most of us went to Catholic schools somewhere along the way. Her family embedded a deep Catholic faith within her, but she was educated by nuns only when she got to D’Youville College. That was where she met Sr. St. Ruth, the librarian, who suggested religious life to her, and Sr. Marie Christine, the Spanish professor. She remained close to them for the rest of their lives. They were only two of many Grey Nun friends—Sr Mary Perpetua, Sr. Beth Morris, Sr. Mary Ellen Hoen, Sr. Rita Lewandowski.
An extrovert, Ruth had friends from all areas of her life, dating back to her young days, and went out of her way to keep in touch with them all. Birthdays and feast days were always remembered with an e-mail Every time she and I were in contact, whether by e-mail or at a meeting, we’d say, “We have to get together for coffee,” until it became a catchphrase for the two of us.
Ruth was artistic and verbally deft. She showed those skills early on in the novitiate, so she was one of those who were designated to create cards for special occasions and write parodies for our parties.
For one of the jubilee celebrations, she drew a reproduction of the portrait of the Eternal Father that Marguerite D’Youville commissioned and which is familiar to every Grey Nun and associate. She took her drawing to a copy place for them to enlarge it and put it on sturdy paper. When she went to pick it up, she told them she was there for the picture of the Eternal Father. The clerk looked puzzled and then said, “Oh, the old man!” Ruth told us the story when she came back, laughing ruefully.
Whatever she did, she did well. As the Spanish teacher at Melrose Academy, she was respected by the best students, and she encouraged those who struggled. She started a Spanish club that was popular because she created games and activities that were fun for the students. She invited all sorts of people, not only Spanish students, even me. When I went to the meetings—well, I don’t want to call them meetings. They were really parties, only the kind you could have during the school day—I saw why students, even those who weren’t strong in Spanish, wanted to come. The gatherings were both fun and educational because of Ruth.
As the campus minister at Erie County Community College, one of the things she did was what many campus ministry offices did, which was collect money to support a poor child in another country. When I’ve seen it in other places, it involved putting out a collection box or allocating some money from a fundraiser. Ruth called the ECC initiative Dimes for Danny (Daniel being the name of their recipient) and used that phrase as a persuasive technique to raise money. Who could resist giving, “a dime for Danny?”
When, after retirement, she decided to write, it was not only to share reminiscences of her life. She ended every anecdote with a scriptural reference and a moral, showing her readers that every situation in life has a connection with God if only we see it rightly. I think she enjoyed advertising and marketing her books as much as writing them.
She took every opportunity to sell her books, seeking out author signings and events where she could read from her books. Her e-mails ended with contact information in case you wanted to buy a book and the reminder that all purchases are donations to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. She set up a Facebook page for Sr. Ruth Penksa (Author). You’ll find her books on Amazon, in both paperback and Kindle.
Her devotion to Marguerite D’Youville and our congregation were unbounded. When the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart started an associates’ program, she jumped in with enthusiasm. Her associate group was devoted and committed, with a variety of loyal people carrying out the charism of St. Marguerite under her direction. She was the one who arranged to have them renew their commitment at our annual celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and she took the initiative to have them included in Grey Nun events in Buffalo.
When in later life she developed mobility problems, I think she didn’t notice. True, she used a cane, a walker, and finally a wheelchair, but she continued all her activities, including traveling to campus ministry meetings all over the country.
In the novitiate, we used to joke about how Ruth, who was the oldest of us, was going to be pushed in her wheelchair by the rest of us. I don’t know that any of us pushed her wheelchair, but I do know that her avid engagement with life was not what we had in mind when we thought of being old.
Just as Ruth preceded us when we traveled to join the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, so she precedes us as the first of our band to see the face of that Eternal Father whom she loved so much, and to be reunited with her family and her Grey Nun friends. May our compassionate God welcome her with great love.
Nancy Kaczmarek, GNSH
January 4, 2017
For more information about Sister Ruth’s life of ministry click here