We are an Easter people

| April 25, 2014 | 0 Comments
Students from Bethlehem Academy in Faribault served as pallbearers and attended the funeral of Mary Manahan at the Immaculate Conception site of Divine Mercy parish in Faribault April 11. Manahan was an alum of Bethlehem Academy and had few living relatives.  Photo courtesy of Rene Thompson, Bethlehem Academy

Students from Bethlehem Academy in Faribault served as pallbearers and attended the funeral of Mary Manahan at the Immaculate Conception site of Divine Mercy parish in Faribault April 11. Manahan was an alum of Bethlehem Academy and had few living relatives. Photo courtesy of Rene Thompson, Bethlehem Academy

Stories printed after Easter often focus on those coming into the Church at the Easter Vigil. This story is also an Easter story; however, it is a reflection on a funeral, and it is a story I almost missed.

I had the opportunity to attend daily Mass at my local parish the week before Holy Week. I am normally not around for daily Mass at my home parish, but I had an appointment in town so I thought I would make the effort to go.

I was running late, my hair was still wet from my shower, and I needed to prepare for my meeting. But since it was daily Mass, I figured I had time to attend and still be able to run back home to get ready.

What happened at that Mass April 11 at the Immaculate Conception site of Divine Mercy parish in Faribault was a special grace that I was blessed to witness.

When I showed up at the church, a hearse was sitting out front. My first thought was selfish: “Oh no, what’s going on? Mass will probably take longer. I may be late for my appointment.”

It was a Mass with students from the local Catholic high school, Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, and they were hosting a funeral — a funeral for a woman I did not know and a woman none of the students at the school knew, either.

Community connection

The principal of Bethlehem Academy, Tom Donlon, received a phone call earlier in the week from Father Kevin Finnegan, pastor of Divine Mercy, with an unusual request: “Would the Catholic high school be host for Mary Manahan’s funeral?”

At 98 years old, Mary, a twin and one of the youngest of a family of 12, had outlived all of her friends and most of her family. She had never married. The original funeral plans for this Bethlehem Academy alum were for a simple ceremony at the funeral home with virtually no one in attendance.

Donlon’s response to Father Finnegan’s request was an immediate “yes.”

In a letter to parents and faculty, Donlon said: “As I listened to Father Finnegan’s request . . . I was moved . . . and thought that no one from the Bethlehem Academy family should ever be alone, in life or in death. So I said, ‘Yes.’ While having a funeral at a school Mass is highly irregular . . . I thought how caring it could be and to remember it is a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead. Is this not a gift we can give to celebrate Mary’s life?”

Initially, Father Finnegan didn’t realize that Mary had graduated from B.A. in 1933, but that connection gave the students reason to respond with great love. They wanted to know more about Mary’s life. Photographs of graduating classes line the hallways of the school, and students were stopping in the hallway to pick out Mary and her twin sister Mildred from the class photos.

Students learned things about her life — like her favorite color , (pink) and planned to wear that color to the funeral. Flowers with a tag from the class of 2017 adorned the casket.

Morgan Purdie, a senior at B.A., was moved by the gesture of the school and Catholic community. “To know that Mary graduated from B.A., to know that she was not alone touched my heart,” she said.

“It was great to know that no matter where I am in my life, I will always be a part of the B.A. community,” Purdie added. “As a senior, this isn’t just where I have spent my last years, but this is a family that will always be with me.”

The understanding that we are all part of something larger than ourselves was reiterated in the homily when Father Finnegan reminded the students that, when they get to heaven, it will be Mary welcoming them. This teaching comes from the early Church Fathers’ understanding that when we die, it won’t be our parents or friends that welcome us into heaven, but it will be the poor and downtrodden that we have helped on this earth.

Regarding the outpouring of love by the students at B.A., Father Finnegan said later: “I’ve been here for 15 years, I have baptized some of the kids, and I am so proud, but in some ways I am not surprised. The younger generation is a great generation and they want to live beyond themselves in lives of generous love. I see that all the time.”

In the homily, Father Finnegan spoke about Mary’s life and reminded us that no one dies alone, although Mary had few visitors in her last years at the nursing home with the exception of parish pastoral staff and the priests.

She suffered from advanced dementia. Although she rarely spoke or interacted with others, she would attend the monthly Masses at St. Lucas Care Center with a smile.

Father Finnegan, visibly moved to tears, relayed the last time he had visited with her. “I was up at St. Lucas to do the prayers of the dying. I anointed her and was telling her she had nothing to be afraid of, that God loves her, that he delights in her, and that God made her for all eternity. As I am leaning over her a few inches from her face, not even knowing if she was responsive, she leaned forward and whispered, ‘I love you’ and leaned back. A few days later she died.”

The story moved my heart and the hearts of many others at Mass that day.

Dying with dignity

There was nothing really remarkable about Mary’s life, but in her death she was able to touch the lives of others.

In the work of upholding human dignity, the response of this community gave me new meaning to a phrase often used in the pro-life community: “dying with dignity.”

Father Finnegan gave me new insight into that phrase. “Dying with dignity has less to do with the one who dies as it does with those around them,” he said. “Mary was treated with dignity as she died — by the staff and those around her and with the response of the Catholic community. That said, there is a call for us to be attentive to those who are dying. There are occasions that people die all alone with no family. That is a call for all of us to be family for them.”

As Father Finnegan closed the homily, he took his cue from Mary’s last words. Possibly with the thought that he will be moving to a new assignment this summer and leaving the Faribault community, he looked at the students and reminded them of our greater connection to each other and the Church. And then he said, “I love you.”

We are an Easter people. We believe in the resurrection. We believe in the community of saints and life everlasting, and maybe it is fitting to remember this Easter season by a reflection on a funeral.

Wilson is the respect life coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life.

 

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Category: This Catholic Life