We were in kitchen doing the supper dishes when Sister Mary Peter came in. "Sister Mary Antoinette just died. Sister Noel and Sister Donna were with her."
This second death in the community this year was pretty much a surprise. Sister had been declining this past week and we knew that there was a possibility that the Lord would come for her relatively soon. That he would come "immediately" had not really been considered. In a way, her surprising departure for eternity was like her unexpected "elopement" for the convent. At least, this is the way I heard about it: unable to secure a full parental blessing to follow her vocation, she up and left as soon as she was of age. It was a bold move, leaving her large, close-knit Italian family like that. And, tough New Yorker that she was, she continued to make bold moves throughout her life.
When I was stationed with her here in the 90's, there was a car (named for her beloved patron saint, St Anthony) reserved for her exclusive use. Nobody else, not even the superior, had her own car. Sister Mary Antoinette was the ultimate errand-runner. She found donations of every kind of material good for us, including elaborate cakes for Profession and Jubilee celebrations. She not only did all the airport runs for the sisters, she ran a Pauline travel agency in the days before the Internet made plane tickets a cinch to buy. Airline staff at Boston Logan knew Sister Mary Antoinette by name, and bent over backwards to accommodate her requests. Once when I was waiting to board a flight to New Orleans, an Eastern Airlines agent came to me. "How is Sister Mary Antoinette?" he asked, and then he slipped me a First Class upgrade (my only experience of First Class travel!). Skycaps would run to help us with our bags, refusing our crinkled dollars: "Sister Mary Antoinette takes care of it with her prayers," they would say.
Handling plane tickets was only one part of the Sister Mary Antoinette Travel Agency. She had a side job at her own Visa and Immigration Services. When I was preparing to go to Italy for a two-year stint and needed a special Visa, Sister Mary Antoinette made all the necessary calls. They were waiting for me at the Italian consulate with everything required for my stay. When sisters (or Pauline priests) from other nations needed to come to the United States for ministry or study, Sister Mary Antoinette handled every last bit of red tape. As her memory began to fade (at this point, taking her many passwords with it), it was a scramble to gather and organize all the information Sister Mary Antoinette had juggled in her once-razor sharp brain.
Sister Mary Antoinette had a heart for women in discernment, and was the first Daughter of St Paul that several of our sisters met, including Sister Donna (in photo), one of the sisters with her at the end. When the nurses were obliged to ask Sister M Antoinette to endure something she really preferred to avoid, often all the superior had to do was suggest, "Offer it up for vocations," and she would surrender. (I am entrusting to her intercession the young women who will participate in our annual Holy Week Discernment Retreat.)
In her declining years, Sister Mary Antoinette remained fairly mobile, thanks to her trusty walker. Sadly, she was often profoundly confused, and might be found in the walk-in refrigerator at night "looking for breakfast," or heading to a dark chapel at 2 a.m. believing she was missing Mass. Over the past month, we were able to get more continuous support for her, and in recent weeks she was much more "present" to the sisters or to the reality around her. In the last few days, she expressed much contentment, affection and grateful love. (She was always effusive with her "Thank you, God bless you!" for the smallest favors.) She kissed the hands of the sisters who visited her, while grasping her crucifix with all her might.
Not knowing what was to come, sisters stayed with Sister Mary Antoinette all day yesterday until finally the Lord himself freed her from the limitations of age and illness to introduce her into the life that awaits us all. She was 93 years old, and a vowed religious for 69 years. May she rest in peace!