Written on: June 9, 2023
Reflection on the Life of Sister Kathleen Purser, GNSH
Funeral Mass June 17, 2023
By Sister Eileen White, GNSH
Sister Kathleen Marie Purser, Sister Gerald Ann, Aunt Kay, Sister Kay, Kay – was one extraordinary woman. If heaven involves reunions, hers will be a huge one – for her life touched SO many people – and each one will be eager to give her an enormous welcome home hug.
At communion, we sang, “What do you want of me, Lord? Where do you want me to serve you? Where can I sing your praises? I am your song.” Those were Kay’s prayers – her whole life, it seems. “Fire my life with your love” was a kind of mantra for her.
Kay was born in Buffalo but soon became a real southerner after her family moved to Atlanta. Her parents, William (also known as “Dick”) and Louise, her sisters, Janet and Roberta, and her brothers, Paul and Gerald and their families each had a part in teaching her how to love and how to be loved. Christ the King school and Pius X High School (Pi Hi) and D’Youville College only reinforced that learning and deepened the faith which carried her through her whole life. She pursued learning and whatever degrees and certifications she needed to do the work she was called to do. Her studies included courses at Catholic University and a master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University, but she also had certificates of all kinds — even certification as a forklift driver!
Kay entered the Grey Nuns in 1961 after a year at D’Youville College. Not long after she received her B.A., the community asked her to be principal of Holy Angels School in Buffalo. She wrote to the superior general asking if she could get some help on how to be a principal and admitted at the end of the note that she was a little scared.
After many rewarding years as teacher and principal in elementary schools, Kay shifted to a different ministry – to the elderly. She served in administration in several different places, including Atlanta’s Lifespan. LifeSpan created the Sister Kathleen Purser Society to honor her 14 years of service, including, ironically, developing programs such as a Day Club for Alzheimer’s and frail adults. Kay said that helping to enhance the meaning of life for the elderly was a part of her personal mission in life.
Kay served as Grey Nun Leadership Councilor and Treasurer from 2003 until 2008. During that time, she also served on the Board for Lower Bucks Center for Church and Community. Kay said once that whenever her primary ministry was not in direct service to the needy, she needed to balance it with volunteer service to the needy. At the end of her term in leadership, she spent a semester of sabbatical time at a place called Berakah. I’ll read you just one of the notes from participants in Berakah’s programs and you’ll see just how much Kay rested during her sabbatical:
“Dear Kay – Sister – Friend – Neighbor! You’ve been such a treasure to our group and to me – your self-giving, willing spirit, your generosity, sharing of gifts and talents, witness of gentle/strong/strength of presence, organizational excellence, travel agency, grand smile loving heart and prayerful depth all speak to you. You are so present – such a gift! In the first introduction of ourselves you said you enjoy challenges and working with others to create something new – You certainly were creative in organizing birthday parties, trips, and neat outings. I hope in all of this your sabbatical time was renewing and enriching, refreshing and life-giving.”
Kay loved to keep moving and to plan new things. Whether to the Georgia Mountains, the Grand Canyon, or Switzerland, Germany and Italy, she relished travel. She also loved being with Bob and Roberta’s clan at the beach. She enjoyed reading on the beach and watching the children in the ocean. Evenings, she played a card game called, interestingly enough, “Oh, Hell!” A woman who embraced simplicity of life, she was not an enthusiastic shopper. Kay would say to Martha as they entered a souvenir shop, “Now, Martha, is there anything in this store that you can’t live without?” Kay loved her gin and tonic (but only after 5 o’clock). At home, Kay was with the community in the TV room, but always working on something – the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls or some other craft or list or puzzle page. Kay had a beautiful smile and a wonderful laugh. Even in the later days at Artis Memory Care, sometimes Kay would deliver that laugh.
Kay was never one to seek recognition of any kind, but she DID enjoy her moment of fame when she was selected to be honored on the Coca Cola Centennial Olympic Wall. She said it was fun when people came up to her to tell her they’d seen her on the wall! You couldn’t miss her when you drove to Atlanta — right there next to Jimmy Carter.
Kay was general Secretary for our Congregation for about five years, including the season of our great “letting go” – when we sold our Motherhouse and moved to Lafayette Redeemer and the Plaza. As always, when the day job was ended, she volunteered her free time at the Bucks County homeless shelter.
The author of the Book of Wisdom believed that God puts people to the test. Personally, I am not inclined to believe that God tested Kay. I believe that life tested Kay – and God was right there with her from the start, finding her always worthy, always gold. She did indeed “run like sparks through stubble”. Ask anyone who ever knew Kay, and they will tell you how kind she was, how generous she was. They will tell you with what ease she sorted things out – from jigsaw puzzles to Sudoku challenges, to chaos in someone’s office, to volunteer meals for 60 homeless men and women, to Grey Nun files and e-mail communications.
We heard about the valiant woman from the author of Proverbs. Kay fit the bill. Kay could work all day, cook supper, and then go to visit someone who was sick. She imagined herself as quite ordinary. She was just trying to follow Jesus – just trying to do what God was asking of all of us – to be for others. Even when she relaxed with a jigsaw puzzle, she was driven – She’d sometimes be up till 2 or 3 in the morning to finish the puzzle! Kay was no slacker!
Mary Finnick told us that living with Kay, you could never be bored. She always had one more project or one more senior, or one more couple to take care of. Yet she was never intrusive, never bossy, she never took over. She let people be who they were. Something about Kay inspired you, helped you discover your own gifts and your own desire to be like her – see the need and answer the call.
Jo Patti said that Kay was a quiet, unobtrusive, faithful friend. Mary Finnick saw Kay’s calming influence. She was not one to talk about religious truths. Rather, she lived them. She showed us all how to live the Christian life.
Kay knew what was happening to her when dementia began to steal from her. Even in the face of that dreadful loss, she was courageous. When she moved to Artis, she continued to reach out to so many residents there, helping them find their way, showing them how to manage.
This morning we heard Jesus’ words to the apostles at the last supper.
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Kay no longer has to worry about packing and getting ready to go to Atlanta as she sometimes did at Artis when she thought the program was over. The closing hymn we’ll sing reiterates Jesus’ promise, “Coming to the house of Jesus, we will find an open door there.”
At a memorial service at Lafayette Redeemer shortly after Kay’s death, Sr. Martha heard a story about a girl who always had God walking beside her. After walking and walking, after years and miles of walking with God, God finally said to her, “We’ve come a long way and now you’re closer to my home than you are to yours. Why don’t you just come home with me?” Let’s hold onto that image of God walking alongside Kay her whole life – and saying to her last week, “Why don’t you come home with me now?”
Go now in peace, faithful friend of God, as you take our love into paradise.
God’s holy angels will lead you home to the wide, welcome arms of the Lord.
Sister Kathleen Purser, GNSH, formerly Sister Ann Gerald, 81, died June 6, 2023. Sister was in her 62nd year of religious life.
Sister Kay, as she was lovingly known, spent 25 years in the field of education in Philadelphia, PA (Melrose Academy); Lowell, MA (Immaculate Conception); Buffalo, NY (Holy Angels School); Atlanta, GA (Immaculate Heart of Mary), (Christ the King) and (St. Paul of the Cross). From 1987-2001, Sister Kathleen served the elderly as Executive Director of LIFESPAN Resources in Atlanta. Sister was a volunteer during the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta, and was among 35 people chosen for depiction on the Coca-Cola’s Centennial Olympic Wall. In 2003, the Sister Kathleen Purser Society was established by LIFESPAN to honor her 14 years of service to the elderly. She found a new outlet for her indomitable energy at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for 2 years prior to being elected to the Leadership Council of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart in 2003; she also served as Treasurer of the Congregation. In 2010, she became Executive Director of the Mobile Meals of Trenton/Ewing, located in Trenton, NJ. Her administrative skills were once again tapped by her Congregation when she was appointed Secretary to the General Administration in 2011.
Sister was born April 30, 1942 in Buffalo, NY, (daughter of the late William and Louise Hausler Purser) a few months before the family moved south, and she became a true daughter of the South. Growing up in Atlanta, she attended Christ the King School and graduated from St. Pius X High School. Sister received a BA in Mathematics from D’Youville College (1966) and an MA in Elementary Education from Columbia University (1974).
In addition to her religious congregation, she is survived by her brother Gerald (Fieda) and sister Roberta (Robert) Breitbeil, brother-in-law Raymond Mattison and sister-in-law Marie Purser, and many nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews. Her sister, Janet Mattison and brother, Paul predeceased her.
Sharing of memories is at 10:30 am on Saturday, June 17 in the Redeemer Sisters’ Chapel, 521 Moredon Rd, Huntingdon Valley, PA; funeral Mass to follow at 11:00 am. Burial in Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem, PA.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, 14500 Bustleton Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19116-1188 or at www.greynun.org. Funeral arrangements by Beck-Givnish Funeral Home, Levittown, PA.