Written on: September 29, 2021
My friend Brother John Ulrich, SM and I were going to make a presentation about vocations way up in the mountains of north Georgia in the 1970s. Stopping in a small café for coffee, we noticed all the folks grew quiet when we walked in. I suspect they had never seen two men in clerical attire before. As we walked out, I heard one of the customers whisper: “They must be with the highway patrol.”
I guess our lives as priests and religious must seem a bit strange to those outside the faith. I only wish all of them could have known some of the sisters and priests who have filled my life with such wisdom and goodness in the past fifty years. One of the wisest bits of advice my beloved Archbishop Donnellan ever gave me was: “Get to know Sister Eileen Murray.”
He had known her and respected her for her work at the orphanage in Ogdensburg, New York. I got to know, love, and respect Sister Eileen both at the Cathedral of Christ the King and Saint Jude the Apostle Church in Atlanta. Sister entered religious life on September 8, 1941! This fall she marks 80 years of service as a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart. In all those years, she taught, cared for orphans, and served the elderly and needy. She was a commanding presence in the classroom. One of her former students said: “She was a serious teacher, keeping us all focused on her teaching topics of science, nutrition, hygiene, and the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.”
Sister Eileen took no prisoners when it came to discipline, but as another student said about the nuns’ way of disciplining, “They honestly cared about who I was and who I was to become.” Another student reminisced about Sister Eileen that she would spend hours after a busy teaching day, tutoring him because he had fallen behind in his studies, and then she’d play catch with him for an hour. A 55-year-old student wondered how someone could not love a nun who was excited about going on a windjammer cruise and loved to devour Cheetos Puffs.
There are a thousand Sister Eileen stories out there! For this priest, Sister Eileen had that gentle wisdom produced by a deep life of prayer and years of dedicated service. I never left her presence without thanking God for her. The simple fact of the matter is that Sister Eileen and all the nuns in our lives have had only two purposes and two loves, Christ and us, nothing else. In the simplicity of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they cared for the sick, taught the willing and unwilling, and were a constant reminder of the feminine genius for compassion and concern.
When Sister Mary Timothy, the legendary “Big Tim” of the Grey Nuns of Atlanta, was released from the hospital to begin her return to the motherhouse, she was shocked into tearful surprise when a line of her former students, now in their 60s and 70s, formed a farewell phalanx of love and appreciation around her. I know that when Sister Eileen and all the other sisters who taught us, loved us, and put up with us, enter glory, they will be surrounded by a group of souls, who will tell Christ “We are here with you in Heaven because they served and loved us on earth.” Sister Eileen, I love you!