In honor and celebration of Sister Catherine, we share her story.
It is fitting that we take this time after Communion for a period of thanksgiving to remember a woman who always lived with a grateful heart.
Sister M. Thomas More, midway in her first term as president of the Congregation, in September 1992 filled out the same form anyone else did to “request approval” to return to her feminine baptismal name. “I no longer find it acceptable to present myself to others under a name that in this culture is normally given to a man.” Four days later, the general secretary informed the superior general that her request was approved and notarized.
Sister Catherine O’Brien, our sister and friend, died a month ago, on another continent, in another season (Spring), under the starry skies of the Southern Cross. When her name first appeared among our ranks, she was but a girl, only 19 filling out her queries as a staff student at Saint Mary’s College, desiring only “to give myself to God.” Sister Maria Pieta (Scott) described Florence Catherine O’Brien, the daughter of Harold and Florence O’Brien of Wyandotte, Michigan, as coming from a very good Irish Catholic family that prayed together, whose admirable mother was “a great inspiration to her children.” Sister Maria Pieta’s recommendation continued, “Florence is one of the most self-sacrificing girls we have had in our group. She is always working for the common good with supernatural motivation. She is much loved by all the staff and exerts a beautiful influence.” Sister Mary Agnes (Mahoney), superior at the College, wrote that Florence had a pleasing manner and seemed to be a humble person. In 1952, after two years of college, the girl from Michigan entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
You will recognize the following poem of Sister M. Madaleva (Wolff), CSC, written for the 1941 Centenary of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The poem is called “Four Girls,” commemorating the reception of the holy habit for the first time on August 4, 1841 by four Marianites of Holy Cross, our soul sisters. Listen carefully. This is our story.
by Sister M. Madaleva (Wolff), CSC
Le Mans was not concerned that August day,
The vigil of Our Lady of the Snow;
He was a dreamer, Basil Marie Moreau;
You were four girls and young; one could not say
That splendor in your futures lay.
Kneeling at Mass a hundred years ago,
Novices newly clad, you did not know
How girlhood, France, and God possessed your way;
How they possess it still, down all these years,
And how new ways out of old have led.
Girls out of other worlds and other climes
Have put on blessed black ten thousand times,
Dreaming your dream, saying the prayers you said
A hundred years ago, my dears, my dears!
Four girls and more, eventually were prepared for ministry as educators, as was she, spending one year each in three different schools as either an elementary or high school teacher in Davenport, Iowa, Gary and South Bend, Indiana. Now fast forward to our 175th anniversary as the Women of Holy Cross, to the summer of 2016. That was when we, here at Saint Mary’s, last saw Sister Catherine O’Brien.
“My dears, my dears!” Can’t you see Sister Catherine in O’Grady Center with the panel of other former presidents of the Congregation, none of them wearing “blessed black”? She called it “a moment of grace not to be missed,” to be one of six presidents reflecting on their years of congregational leadership. Remember?
Catherine, small of stature, sat there at the table, which was almost too high for her. She had only ten minutes to sum up ten years (1989-1999). As she read the prepared text she would pause, looking up from the summary of what she and her two councils and two terms had done to implement general chapter directions. Hers were pauses of recognition. She saw in the audience many sisters who had worked with her. Some of you are here today in this church—and Congregation—that she and you helped renovate, but not without controversy. She laughed and smiled frequently, concluding that every time the Congregation experienced a loss, had to let something go, we also received something in return from God. Looking right at us she asked, “You remember, don’t you?” As if to say, “Don’t you agree?”
Sister M. Veronique (Wiedower), our current president, said of Sister Catherine (9.8.2017): “Her generosity and humility in serving as regional superior to the Apostolate Abroad, and as President of the Congregation, helped to move the Sisters of the Holy Cross through challenging times of rapid change. She courageously accepted the cross of ill health, and carried it with joy. Yet I believe her most precious gift was that of presence. She listened and engaged with everyone she met with a quick mind and an open heart.”
Those last words bear repeating. She had a “quick mind and an open heart.” That quick mind exercised a vocabulary of decision, action, movement, choices.
She was also heart-centered, using such phrases as: desire of our heart, prayerful heart, discerning heart, the heart’s eye, alive with the heartbeat of Jesus. And she consistently brought both mind and heart together asking us “how will we direct our hearts?”
Sister Catherine had a lifelong devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. The following quote of “God’s Little Flower” was used on the memorial card distributed in São Paulo at the time of Catherine’s memorial mass: “I understood that love comprised all vocations, that was everything, that it embraced all times and places…in a word, that it was eternal! Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love…my vocation, at last I have found it…MY VOCATION IS LOVE!”
Sister Diane Cundiff wrote me that one of Catherine’s favorite gospel stories was of Jesus sleeping in the boat. As Diane put it, “Catherine faced tons of waves in her life. She knew as she faced big waves that she herself could not calm them, only ask him to do it in his time and way. She believed that she had to do no more than be in the boat where Jesus invited her to be. She had great faith. I never remember her being afraid. She would be in that boat when the Congregation or community needed her to ask Jesus to keep us from drowning.”
Last week I re-read Saint Therese’s autobiography, The Story of a Soul. I have the sense that Catherine O’Brien, as a young sister, found great comfort in the story of a soul who was equally sensitive, romantic, passionate, imaginative, perhaps too scrupulous, and utterly willing to abandon all for love’s sake as God’s missionary. Catherine, in a draft of her essay on her administration, was so proud of what she called the Congregation’s “unflinching” commitment to social justice for women and children, especially the poor and marginalized. “Unflinching”-- what a strong word, what a strong woman—who was unflinching to the very end.
As for that end, she and Therese of Lisieux referred to God as a “thief of our heart.” During Advent 1989, Sister Catherine gave a homily about waiting for God’s action in our lives, like waiting for that thief in the night. She spoke not of fear, but of expectation, “If we knew the hour of His coming we would set out to catch Him…. How wonderful to know and to discover that we have caught God.”
Long ago she set out to catch the thief, leaving her girlhood behind, giving thanks with girls out of other worlds and other climes as Women of Holy Cross, down all these years, where new ways out of old have led. “My dears, my dears,” one thing remains constant, OUR VOCATION IS LOVE! Thanks be to God.
Memento given by Sister Catherine Osimo, CSC at a Memorial Mass on October 5, 2017, Church of Our Lady of Loretto, Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, Indiana.