Yesterday afternoon I attended the funeral of a former teacher of mine, a Sister of Charity who had a great impact on my life. She was the Assistant Principal of the Elementary School that I attended as a young girl and I never forgot her. Sister Martha Cummings, S.C. was a young woman when I knew her, but when you’re young you think every adult is old, she was only in her 30’s. I cannot say exactly why she left such an impression on me as well as so many others. She was very strict and had that look that would strike fear into the hearts of the toughest kids. She had away about her that commanded respect, yet she was extremely kind. Sr. had a great sense of humor and timing, but you would never dare to cross her, for she could be very daunting. I think one thing that drew me to her as a young girl, was that though she was in habit, she looked like a tom boy and with three older brothers; I too was a boy’s girl. She was tough and funny, yet kind and prayerful. What an unusual woman, and a role model for us youngsters watching her. On a memorial site posted on Facebook a young man who was often in trouble in tribute stated, that Sr. Martha was always fair. What more can we ask of an authority figure.
About two years ago, myself and some of the girls from my class met with Sr. Martha for dinner and a mini-reunion, when I called to invite her, she nervously asked me why we wanted to meet with her. I laughed out loud as I explained how much we wanted to see her and thank her for her goodness, her kindness and her wonderful example. These many years later, gone was the tough, sergeant major that we remembered and in her place was a loving, gentle woman who was so interested in our lives and our families. When I forwarded some of my articles from catholicmom.com, she emailed me how proud she was of me and who I had become. That lovely, motherly comment, brought tears to my eyes. I was so touched by her words and wanted to live up to her expectations, just as I had when I was young. Sister set the bar high for us young women and men, she gave us talks on modesty and purity. She ran the school with an iron fist, clothed in a white velvet glove and we cared what she thought.
At the funeral I learned all that Sister had accomplished in the past 30 some odd years, in her late 40’s she decided to switch careers and with the approval of her superiors returned to school to become an R.N., a few years continuing her education she got a degree in hospital administration. In her last years she was the Administrator for the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt. What a truly amazing, brilliant woman and yet it’s not her degrees that made her memorable. There was standing room only at this amazing nun’s funeral, people from every part of her life and so many years later many of her students showed up to give testimony to the impact she made on their lives. What is it about a person that can leave such an impression? I believe that it was love. Sr. Martha’s niece recalled that she could be sitting in a crowded room with her, but when she spoke to you, she looked directly at you, asked questions, gave you her full attention and acted as if you were the only person there. Focus, genuine interest, caring and love. When I made the initial contact with her a few years ago, I was so thrilled to get her on the phone and said, Sister, it’s Maureen O’Shea, I don’t know if you remember me. Her enthusiastic response was, “Of course I remember you!”
Sr. Martha Cummings was an amazing lady and a beautiful example of the wonderful Sisters of Charity who taught me at St. Barnabas Elementary & High School in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, New York. As I stood in awe of the sisters who crowded into the chapel, I was touched as the nuns escorted the casket up the aisle to the altar. They are each other’s family. As I looked upon these beautiful women, their lives given in service to God, I was truly in awe, I who sometimes have trouble sacrificing a piece of chocolate in Lent. What an example, what an inspiration. My girlfriend and I had moved to the back of the chapel to give seats to the many religious who were attending the funeral mass and I stood behind an elderly nun a little bent over from old age, she had a walker folded against the seat in front of her. Half way through the mass she turned back to me and offered me her seat. To tell you the truth, I thought she was kidding. She repeated the offer and said take it just for a little while, for a rest. I demurred, but truly I was in shock. What love, what thoughtfulness.
Yesterday was a wonderful respite from the busy world we live in, to spend time with these lovely women who have given of themselves to such an extent. To be reminded of the goodness and charity in their little corner of the world was refreshing. It gives me hope for mankind to see these women who have dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ and to helping others. Their prayers and sacrifices give me a renewed vigor in my prayer life and in my desire to be a loving, faithful Catholic woman. The virtues of the Sisters of Charity of New York are humility, simplicity and prayer. Sister Martha, as you rest in the arms of Jesus, truly you expressed those virtues to the world by the gift of your life. Thank you.
Were you ever impacted by a religious that helped shape your life?
Copyright 2014 Maureen O’Shea