The following is a guest reflection from Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, R.S.M., a journalist, author, radio commentator, and Sister of Mercy living in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Newsday’s front page story about a nun killed by a hit-and-run driver on a country road in Water Mill, N.Y., included a photo of the victim’s smiling face. That inset was in sharp contrast to the screaming headline: “Tears for Sister Jackie.” The headline writer couldn’t have known the waterfall of tears that would flow during the gatherings and services that, over the following days, would draw an estimated five thousand to find solace and support in St. Edward the Confessor Church in Syosset. It was in that Long Island parish where Jackie Walsh, 59, played so many roles that one parishioner exclaimed, “What will we do without her? Sister Jackie ran everything!” Those words, spoken at the first service, held less than 24 hours after her death, were among many tributes to this extraordinarily beloved Sister of Mercy. Father Tom Fusco, St. Edward’s pastor and Jackie’s friend, extended the invitation to gather at once. He knew his parishioners needed to come to their church to be with one another in God’s presence.
Young people described Sister Jackie as a grown-up to whom they found it easy to talk. Adults who had been away from the church discovered Jackie to be a welcoming open door for them; newcomers to Catholicism and those planning weddings relished her instruction and assistance. Their memories held her as a generous, forgiving, easy-going woman who was convinced of God’s unconditional love for every member of the human family. She never judged anyone or took herself too seriously. She loved people and she loved life—music, dancing, nature, parties. Her laugh was as big as her compassion was deep. The local rabbi confessed that he once wanted to hug Sister Jackie, but didn’t know if it was acceptable for a rabbi to hug a nun. The burst of laughter he received in response assured him that it was. Parishioners had no hesitation about leaning on Jackie; children had no problem climbing up on her lap.
Local media could not get enough of the story. Newspapers and radio and television stations detailed the events related to the sudden death of this sister. The elements were classic: Beloved nun takes a walk on the road where she and other Sisters of Mercy were at the start of a week-long spiritual retreat. Very close to the retreat house, Mercy Villa, a driver in a borrowed car mows her down, speeds away and vanishes. The one small comfort was that he alerted a sister walking in the opposite direction to the body he’d left on the road. At least everyone would know she had not lain there long, but had died on impact. Prayers during that first service and again during the funeral Mass the following Saturday included petitions that the killer would be found and that he would find pardon and peace. “Sister Jackie,” one man said, “has already forgiven him.”
The church couldn’t accommodate all who attended Saturday morning’s Mass of the Resurrection. A huge tent held an extra 250 people, but standees still lined the walls. Nobody seemed to be complaining. They would do anything for their Jackie, as was evident in the gifts of food, flowers, tributes and donations. During his homily, Father Fusco revealed that the parish window washers had come by on Thursday to wash the church’s many windows without charge. They said they knew Sr. Jackie appreciated clean windows.
The picture on the Mass booklet was of the disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on their way to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize the person for whom they were grieving. Jesus walked and talked with them, explaining the events. They later recognized him in the breaking of the bread. This, Jackie’s favorite scripture passage, was what she was praying about during her final walk on earth, a walk the pastor said led her into the arms of a loving God. Surely, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jackie’s heart was burning within her!
The first reading, from Micah, spoke of the sacrifice most pleasing to God: to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God. The homilist offered ample examples of how Sister Jackie fulfilled each of those virtues. She understood the necessity of tempering justice with mercy, her tender love embraced relatives, religious community and parishioners and her humility prevented her from seeing herself as better than others. She related easily with people of all kinds. Once, while undergoing physical therapy, she was listening to music on her iPod. She turned to the young male therapist and said, “I bet you’re wondering what kind of music a nun listens to.” To his nodded assent, she passed him the iPod: Jennifer Lopez! Her choice of music was eclectic.
During one of the sharing sessions, a sister recalled that Jackie’s photographs were superior to anyone else’s because she captured her subjects’ emotions. Perhaps that was because, in her humility, she, as listener and observer, could be entirely focused on the other person. Many people received her photos as gifts. Father Fusco reported receiving not one, but five, beautiful albums for his recent Jubilee. For each occasion, he said, her gift was accompanied by “an eloquent, effusive expression of gratitude.” Citing another example of her humility, he said Sister Jackie sat in the dunk tank at parish festivals. Because so many paid for privilege of dunking her, theirs became “the most lucrative in the history of festival dunk tanks!”
The final reflection came from her friend and sponsor into the Mercy Community, Sister Anne Lynch. She spoke of Jackie’s education through college, her years as Supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks and, finally, at 29, her decision to become a Sister of Mercy. Her parents weren’t pleased with their only child’s decision. In time, however, they realized they had inherited a much larger family—Jackie’s sisters in community. They joined in their efforts and celebrations and each died surrounded by Sisters of Mercy.
Anne repeated words from Jackie’s profession ceremony many years ago: “God of love, God of laughter, God of my life, all creation speaks to me of you.” Jackie Walsh lived life intensely. She had on her website two favorite quotes from Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. The first: “What a glorious thing it is to be a Sister of Mercy!” The second: “Do all you can for the people of God. The time is short.”
Although, for the God of Eternity, time is never short, we who mourn our Sister Jackie feel shortchanged. On the other hand, only at this time in Jackie’s life, only under the tragic circumstances that took her from us, would we have seen so clearly in the thousands who came to pray and pay tribute, the Power of One whose life was spent in sync with the God who called her.
One question lingers. We will not ask who will replace this vibrant woman. There never was a replaceable human being. But who will draw from the example of Jackie’s life and death the courage to follow in her footsteps as a Sister of Mercy?