January 7, 1919 - August 1, 2013
We come here this morning to give thanks for the life of Sister Elizabeth O’Hearn, who we knew was ill, but did not expect God to take her so suddenly from us.
Earlier this morning at our Prayer to welcome Sister Elizabeth back to her home here at Bethany, we heard the words from our Constitution: “We see relationship at the heart of mission”.
Sister Elizabeth O’Hearn or Sister Melisa or “Ibby” (as her family called her) lived these words in a quiet, joyful manner. Her smile was her key, her gentleness was her manner of living, and her generosity of spirit was noticeable to all who knew Elizabeth. Even in her years spent here in Bethany, her willingness to acquiesce to those who cared for her was greatly admired.
Born and raised in South Boston, Elizabeth loved her “family turf” especially her church, St. Vincent. She often expressed this area of Southie as being “better” than the Gate of Heaven! Raised in a religious family that was closely bonded to one another, she witnessed at an early age her family members reaching out to people, not only to socialize but to assist them in any manner they could.
At twenty years of age – 74 years ago, Elizabeth entered the Sisters of St. Joseph. Her early years as a Sister of St. Joseph were devoted as a service manager in two of our Congregational institutions, – the dormitory of Mount St. Joseph Academy and at St. Clement Military School in Canton. In later years Sister Elizabeth became a primary school teacher.
However, remaining in the Boston Archdiocese was not to last for long! 1950 was to be a turning point for Elizabeth! Perhaps reflecting God’s words in the book of Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have in mind for you.” Or words from our Constitution, “We affirm the diversity of our gifts, which allows us to reach out to so many people.” These statements moved Elizabeth to answer an invitation from the Congregation in 1950 to join four other Sisters of St. Joseph, to begin a new mission in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
For Elizabeth to say “yes” to the Congregation call was a great surprise to those Sisters who lived with her, her friends, her Party, and some of her family. However, they strongly approved of her decision to answer the call. They knew that Elizabeth (Melissa) – possessed multiple talents and gifts that could assist the needs of the people in New Mexico. She was a woman who lived her religious life with simplicity, possessed a collegial personality, and would be a great asset to the Sister’s community in the new foundation. Can you just imagine the anticipation when Melissa and the other three Sisters stepped on that plane at Logan Airport to begin a new life in New Mexico!
Upon arrival at Santa Rosa, New Mexico, Melissa spent time supporting and assisting the Sisters in school. 1n 1954 when Cristo Rey School opened, Elizabeth (Melissa) was one of the first Sisters to be on the Faculty. Walking down the corridor of Cristo Rey School one could hear the Kindergarten children in Melissa’s classroom singing in Spanish, Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?
In 2001 the establishment of the Sister Melissa Scholarship Fund was initiated by two lay apostles from Regis College who witnessed Melissa’s dedication to Catholic Education at Cristo Rey School.
After more than twenty five years, Sister Melissa (Elizabeth) returned to Boston. Here she continued her ministry in teaching at St. Bridget School and St. William School. During her years in New Mexico, Melissa had readily captured the artistry of the New Mexican people. She not only continued to incorporate the south- western culture in her teaching to the urban and city students who were her pupils, but also passed onto the Sisters in Boston their customs and to some of us their jewelry!
To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Sisters of St. Joseph arrival at Santa Rosa, Elizabeth traveled to New Mexico. Her heart was filled with delight and gratitude that she could again be on New Mexican soil and be in the company of the people she had loved. During her visit, Elizabeth was asked to be the Grand Marshall of the parade to celebrate the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston. What a tribute to a gentle, humble Sister of St. Joseph!
It appears that from her modest living as a Sister of St. Joseph, Sister Elizabeth O’ Hearn had some inner force that allowed her to say “yes” when asked to do an extraordinary task - to risk and still retain a demeanor of peace. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass this morning, “I am the Vine you are the branches”, gives us an indication of Elizabeth’s strength. She recognized God as her force of life, and knew that if she continued to be attached to the will and desire of God for her, she would be able to answer the calls in her life, no matter if they were challenges or joys. Elizabeth was able to manifest an interior peacefulness throughout her life, and many of us, who lived on a mission or at the Motherhouse with her witnessed this as we lived community life with her.
Eleven years ago because of declining health Elizabeth began her residence here at Bethany. With the passage of time Elizabeth’s health dramatically changed, yet the staff at Bethany can attest that her life as a patient was one of kindness and adaptability to her care. I believe that Elizabeth was aware of the visits from her family, Sisters and friends. Some have shared stories of their visits with Elizabeth. They were surprised when they were able to get a smile or an “open eye” from her. They felt she knew they were with her at her bedside.
We read the invitation in our Constitution on Prayer, “to let ourselves be emptied by God, that we might be filled with love, a love that flows out to one another, and to those whose lives ours touch”. Truly, I believe Sister Elizabeth O’ Hearn, (Melissa), (Ibby) lived this passage in her life. May we who honor her this morning, carry her memory each day, by attempting to live this passage as well.
Memories are gifts. In the act of remembering we often find ourselves grateful. I invite anyone who wishes to come forward now to share a thought or a story in which Sister Elizabeth (Melissa) “Ibby” touched your life.
We honor the life of Sister Elizabeth O’Hearn and thank her for answering the call to be of service to the “dear neighbor” not only in the Archdiocese of Boston but as a pioneer in our missions in New Mexico.
Given By: Gail Donahue, CSJ