Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy

Pope John Paul II and Sister Mary Ann met while she covered Rome for Catholic News Service from 1983 to 1986. Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano.

A new series of profiles on the blog for the Sisters of Mercy offers a moving look at the lives of women who have spent decades embodying Mercy in their communities and in the church and who now, in the face of serious illness, find grace in accepting this mercy from others.

One of these powerful stories, written by Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist for the Sisters of Mercy, is about our colleague and friend, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who has been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She faces her illness with the same grace, class, faith and fortitude with which she approached life:


After a nearly 30-year career as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and Rome, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who is 67, has returned to the Sisters of Mercy’s convent in Albany, New York, to live out her final days with metastatic breast cancer. There her sisters lift her up daily in prayer and in practical ways.

They vie to push her wheelchair into the chapel for morning Mass and to the dining room, including a 90-year-old sister who says she was “certified” by the convent’s staff nurse for this duty. One sister brings Sister Mary Ann toast in the morning, when her appetite is weak. Others make her bed, do her laundry and help her with personal care.

“Mercy has jumped in from every corner to help me, in ways both large and small,” says Sister Mary Ann softly. “I want for nothing.” ...

Sister Mary Ann had been attracted to the Sisters of Mercy’s fourth vow of service as a high school student serving others through volunteer work with the Legion of Mary. Receiving Mercy instead of giving it “is very hard,” she says. “I feel undeserving. I don’t think I’ve ever been as good to people as they have been to me these past few months. But they assure me that I have!”

Her experience of cancer “is like a living wake,” continues Sister Mary Ann. “You get letters from people telling you all that you did and you had no idea. ‘You helped us with our marriage. You helped us with our adoption. My husband was sick with depression and you were there for us.’ And I wonder, ‘When did I do all that?’ It’s humbling.” Most profound of all, says Sister Mary Ann, has been the support of Sisters of Mercy in Albany and elsewhere. “Mercy sees your needs before you see them and it’s just been overwhelming,” she says. “It’s been a great embracing by the Mercy family.”

There's much more, so be sure to read the entire story (which brought me to tears), complete with photos and video, at the Sisters' blog

Update: Those who would like to send cards of encouragement and prayer to Sister Mary Ann may do so at the following address.

Convent of Mercy
634 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208-1715


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Tim Reidy
3 years 8 months ago

Thanks for posting this, Kerry. Our readers can follow Sister Mary Ann's reporting for America here.

Bruce Snowden
3 years 8 months ago
I would say, for the Catholic, the Christian, there are two ways (at least two ways I can think of) to handle illness, terminal illness according to NT teaching. #1, As Jesus said, "It is the sick, not the healthy who need a physician." Thus, we are advised by Jesus to make good use of doctoring, using all the medical means possible to not only maintain good health, but to recover it, if possible, when threatened. God heals in many ways, medically, one of them, Doctors participate in God's healing capacities leading to the well known axiom, "If you want to see the Hand of God, look at the hand of a doctor!" #2, St. Paul asserts that through our suffering we "make-up for whatever was lacking in the sufferings of Christ," becoming as it were salvific co-redeemers. Of course nothing was lacking in the sufferings of Christ so how may St. Paul's teaching be understood? I believe his teaching focuses on the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, whom we are, in human words trying to show the intrinsic "oneness" between the physical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of Christ, one and the same, really. Thus, the sufferings of the Church were experienced on Calvary in an anticipatory way preparing what was to come in our sufferings, in line I think with St. Pau's teaching that, what is, and what is to come are somehow, "one and the same". (I can't recall in which Letter that claim is made.) We see the "one and the same" application taking place at the First Eucharist, where before the Sacrifice of the Cross happened the next day on Good Friday, it happened at the First Mass the day before, on Holy Thursday. We are talking here of something altogether "other" something of the World to Come that transcends whatever can be logically understood within the constraints of time. So, then, it does seem to me we as Believers have at least two wonderful ways to live with suffering, and to peacefully die in the embrace of "Sister Death" as Francis of Assisi would say, this possible through through Faith in Jesus, Without that I guess Assisted Suicide is the non-answer for some. How tragic!


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