Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a journalist and a longtime spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, died on April 28, succumbing to a recurring cancer. True to form, she transformed her last days into an opportunity for a final lesson in living with dignity and grace.
She described her experience as “like a living wake.... 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.”
She was 68 and passed away in a hospice in Albany next to the regional convent of the religious order she entered as a 17-year-old novice in 1964. In March, the Catholic Press Association had given her its highest honor, the St. Francis de Sales Award, in recognition of her lifetime achievement in Catholic media.
“The editors, staff and supporters of America mourn the passing of Sister Mary Ann Walsh, America’s U.S. Church Correspondent,” said America’s editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J. “Sister Walsh was a valued colleague and friend, a writer of exceptional talent and insight, whose faith animated her entire life.”
He called Sister Walsh “the first female religious to serve on the editorial staff of America,” a trailblazer “even in this last phase of her professional life, a career that spanned four impressive decades.”
“I admired her steadiness of character and inventiveness in exercising her often difficult responsibilities,” said Drew Christiansen, S.J., a Georgetown University professor and former editor in chief of America. “But nothing became her in life as her passage from it, with so many of her sisters gathered around her week after week and tending to her. She and they gave us all a model of a Christian death.”
Walsh had moved to her native Albany from Washington last September after it was discovered that the cancer that had been in remission since 2010 had returned. She was able to receive better care there and live out her days with other members of the Sisters of Mercy.
“Sister Mary Ann,” as she was known to the many journalists she sparred and joked with and, with regularity, befriended, worked at the communications office of the American hierarchy for 20 years, retiring in the summer of 2014 just before she fell ill again. She became director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the first woman to hold that position—after coordinating media for World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, which featured an enormously successful visit by then-Pope John Paul II.
She was born in Albany on Feb. 25, 1947, the only daughter of Irish immigrants, and as a high school student had been drawn to the Sisters of Mercy and their commitment of service to the poor, especially women and children. She worked as a correspondent for Catholic News Service in Rome and Washington before taking the U.S.C.C.B. job.
Last summer, Sister Mary Ann joined America. “It’s the ideal job, a job of opinion, after working in an institution that thought opinion was anathema,” she said in an interview in February.
In an account of her illness written by her community, Sister Walsh said she struggled to let herself be taken care of. “I find it hard to receive mercy,” she explained in a video posted by the Mercy sisters. “I’m used to being independent, and if somebody helps me put on my shoes, for example, that’s humbling. I don’t expect it.”
But “Mercy has jumped in from every corner to help me, in ways both large and small,” she said. “I want for nothing.”