January 1, 2004

A Woman of the Church

She came to New York City from Dublin over 40 years ago. Shortly after her arrival, a friend of a relative in Ireland informed her that Miss McKenna, the housekeeper at 452 Madison Avenue, the residence of the then-Archbishop Francis Spellman, was in need of an assistant. She applied for the position, worked with Miss McKenna for several years, and finally took charge herself of the four-story residence attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Her name was Maura O’Kelly. She was a short, self-assured lady with a lovely smile and an Irish maxim for every situation. She saw to it that there was never a crumb on the floor or even a hint of dust on any tabletop at "452." For the residence was her responsibility, no more or less than it was the home of the four Cardinal-Archbishops who lived there during her years of service. She welcomed popes and kings, governors and mayors, judges and business leaders, authors and actors, priests and religious all with equal directness and charm. There was no subservience in Maura O’Kelly. She was a "pro" in her field. She knew it, and all who made her acquaintance soon knew it too.

Maura O’Kelly was also an extraordinarily good person, close to the Lord and anxious to go one day to Rome for the canonization of Terence Cardinal Cooke, whom she admired greatly. She was certain that he was a saint; and if she had had the opportunity to testify about that sanctity before the officials in the Vatican, we were all quite sure that she could have convinced them in the twinkling of an eye.

On Christmas Day, Maura O’Kelly was in her apartment in lower Manhattan, having dinner with one of her sisters and three close New York friends. She had been ill for months and was showing troubling signs of the heavy medication she had been taking. Her napkin slipped off her lap. She reached down to pick it up, and the Lord reached down to take her to Himself. It all happened quickly and without fuss, very much in the style of Maura O’Kelly.

The next day, Bishop Timothy McDonnell, Msgr. Thomas Gilleece and Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo – all current residents of Maura O’Kelly’s house – concelebrated Mass with me in the chapel she had kept so spotlessly and so lovingly for so many years. We prayed for the repose of her soul with fervor and affection and afterwards over breakfast chatted at length about "a great woman of the Church," as one of our number described her over and over again.

The description captivated me. "How many ‘great women of the Church’ I am privileged to meet week after week, year after year, here in the Archdiocese of New York," I have been musing to myself ever since.

For example, just two days before the passing of our beloved housekeeper, I was in the Bronx at the Kennedy Child Study Center of Catholic Charities. The director is Dr. Ann Williams. Like Maura O’Kelly, she is small of stature but incredibly tall in every other way. Under her supervision, hundreds of children between the ages of 1 and 5 with severe physical, mental and emotional problems receive the finest, most professional care available anywhere in Greater New York, both in the facility in the Bronx on 179th Street and in another similar facility in Manhattan on East 67th Street.

Dr. Williams and her gifted staff escorted me from brightly decorated room to brightly decorated room. I joined the games of tots with every imaginable bodily and psychological affliction. I assisted Santa Claus in distributing gifts and especially in opening gifts for those children who could not open them for themselves but squealed with delight as fire engines and dolls with long braids emerged from the wrappings. I applauded the breaking of a candy-filled piñata by a little boy with Down syndrome. And all the while I watched out of the corner of my eye "a great woman of the Church," Dr. Ann Williams, as she presided over the festivities wisely, deftly, lovingly.

Less than a week before my visit to the Kennedy Center, I found myself at Providence Rest Nursing Home on Waterbury Avenue in the Bronx. I came to offer Mass for the 200 residents and the splendid staff that serves them with all the attention of loving relatives.

The administrator of the home is Sister Seline Mary Flores of the Society of St. John the Baptist. At the conclusion of the Mass, she took me from department to department in the two large buildings in her care, introducing by name each of her collaborators from nurse to cook, and explaining in detail what each is assigned to do to make the sick and elderly residents more comfortable and active.

Joining us at lunch was a former Mother General from Rome. Sister Seline Mary, a native of Tegucigalpa in Honduras who has lived and worked in New York for decades, and Mother Claudia Porzio, an Italian from a town south of Rome who traveled the world for years visiting her sisters in schools, hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes, each told her life story after considerable prodding from me. We spoke now in English, now in Spanish and now in Italian. It was a joy to be with them and the 14 other sisters who joined us at table as their duties for the residents permitted.

What can I say of all of them to express in some small measure my immense admiration and esteem? Perhaps "great women of the Church" will do the trick.

The next stop was a brief visit to Our Lady of the Assumption parish, a few blocks from Providence Rest. It was a cold day. The pastor, Reverend Donald Dwyer, offered me a hot cup of coffee and, like any pastor deeply committed to Catholic education, suggested that I might like to drop by to see the students in his school.

I agreed with delight and was awarded with an introduction to Mrs. Barbara Kavanagh, the principal. She is a very young lady, full of energy and endowed with a most engaging personality. She walked me through the corridors of her school of well over 500 students, describing the artwork on the walls, the most recent improvements in the curriculum and the extraordinary support of the young scholars’ parents, a number of whom were supervising the lunchroom as we entered to say "hello."

The principal walked in among the lunchroom tables, reminding her charges that there would be no ice cream unless the peas and carrots on their plates were eaten first. Meanwhile, a group of mothers pulled me aside. "She’s wonderful," "She’s a real ‘pro,’ " and "She’s the best," they told me. I only wish I had thought to add, "She’s also ‘a great woman of the Church.’ "

By two o’clock in the afternoon, the appointed hour, I got out of my car at St. Dominic’s Home in Blauvelt in Rockland County. Waiting for me just inside the door of one of the many buildings that form a large complex of institutions of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt on both sides of Western Highway, was Sister Joseph Mary, the director of St. Dominic’s Home.

I had met Sister before and recognized her immediately. She is the kind of person you are unlikely to forget. A bright, thoughtful woman with an extraordinary memory, you feel sure she could run any great corporation in the land with style and ease. Happily, she rather applies her extraordinary talents to taking expert and tender care of over 1,000 children and young adults who are either in foster homes or residing at St. Dominic’s Home because of developmental difficulties or need of ongoing guidance in their lives.

Before visiting a number of individual cottages and rehabilitation areas, Sister Joseph Mary brought me to a floor of the motherhouse of the order to chat with the retired sisters who are confined to their rooms for reasons of age or health. This one had overseen the finances of the community for 30 years. A second had been in charge of an infirmary in the missions for 40 years. A third had been a teacher and principal in the inner-city schools of New York for 50 years. And so it went.

They kidded me about having received my grammar school education in a village outside of Chicago from "those other Dominicans," the Dominicans of Sinsinawa in Wisconsin. They inquired as to how I was "holding up" with the various problems that come my way. And most importantly, they promised their prayers, which have to be immensely powerful before the throne of God. For they are the prayers of the truly "great women of the Church."

The day ended with coffee and a delightful meeting with 50 members of the lay staff of St. Dominic’s Home and a brief visit to a group of young ladies of high school age whom the sisters and their co-workers instruct and counsel day by day in order to assist them to become "great women of New York" and, with the grace of the Lord, perhaps even "great women of the Church," like the wonderful Daughter of St. Dominic who stood in the cold, dark evening outside St. Dominic’s Home to say "good-bye" to the Archbishop whom she had so greatly impressed and inspired.

There is so much more I could add. A week or two before the day that ended in Blauvelt, I had been down on the lower West Side at the elementary schools of St. James’ parish on Oliver Street and St. Joseph’s parish on Monroe Street. The principal of St. James, Mrs. Ann McGoldrick, and the principal of St. Joseph’s, Sister Deborah Lopez of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had not been expecting me; and neither had I for my part been expecting what I was about to see. The principals and their teachers were still hard at work in classrooms filled with children of all ages long after the workday of an ordinary school would be over. I asked Sister Deborah why. She looked over at the clock on the wall of the classroom we were visiting. It was 5:35 p.m. "We stay as long as the children need us," she whispered. The children about whom she spoke are mostly Hispanic, African-American and Chinese. I stood amazed at the goodness and self-sacrifice of these "great women of the Church" and breathed a prayer of thanks for them to the Lord.

On the Tuesday after Christmas, I returned from my annual retreat to celebrate the Funeral Mass of Maura O’Kelly. While putting on the vestments in the cathedral sacristy, I thanked the Lord for her and asked her to beg Him to grant "the great women of the Church" here in New York every grace and blessing over the years that lie ahead. I may be mistaken. However, I think I might have heard a familiar voice with a lovely Irish lilt reply, "Sure, and I will be doing that. But now you get to the business in Rome about Cardinal Cooke. We’ve had enough dillying and dallying."

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York