Portrait of a Heart:
Mother Mary Francis of Our Lady, P.C.C.
February 14, 1921 - February 11, 2006
“The trouble with you, Mother, is that you're all heart!...” Our Mother Francis was then federal abbess, on visitation in one of our California monasteries, and at that moment in pleasant conversation with one of the sisters. The sister concluded her analysis of Mother's trouble with a loving command: “...And don't ever change!”
She never did. To describe Mother Mary Francis of Our Lady is to paint a portrait of a heart, a heart fully alive to God and fully in love with Him, a heart that shared life and love gladly and generously all the days of her life.
Mother would often recount a memory of her early childhood: she stood at the window on a snowy day, watching the small birds on a tree in the garden. Her mother noticed the tearful expression on her daughter's face. The problem? The little birds were bare-legged, and Alberta worried that their legs were cold without any stockings. This compassionate concern for others did not fade from the child-heart as it grew, but blossomed into an expansiveness of heart that gathered the needs of all into its embrace. She would hear of a friend's sickness, or an accident, or any misfortune, and we would hear a familiar expression in response: “My heart goes out to them.” And if there were any way to help, she would help; first of all, in prayer, in sympathy, in a loving expression of concern.
Hers was a generous heart, all-given and all-giving. When she first enter the Chicago monastery in 1942, a book was being read in the refectory about a religious sister whose ambition it was “to fall to dust in God's service.” Mother never forgot this inspiration, and lived it out to the full. Marvelously endowed by God with talents of mind and heart, she poured out these gifts unstintingly in the service of the community and the Church. Her first book was not written because she felt her literary gifts had to find expression, but because her abbess, Mother Immaculata, bade her enter a contest for “a first book by an unknown author” in order to win the $1,000 prize which was needed to fix the leaky monastery roof. So it was with all of Mother's literary works. One of our Franciscan friars asked her to write an Easter play, so “Road to Emmaus” was born. Many of her books, such as Anima Christi, were collections of conferences she had given to her spiritual daughters at chapter or on retreat days. Writing a book was never a goal in itself, and even when we begged her to take the time to edit the transcribed conferences stored away in boxes, she preferred to spend that precious time writing to our friends, extending her love and concern to them in their needs.
Her generosity was apparent in all spheres of her life; she gave her beautiful, rich voice fully to the singing of the Divine Office, to daily vocal prayer. She accomplished a tremendous amount of work in very limited amounts of time. The full-time work of serving a large community as abbess was done with attentive love as she cared for the needs of the sisters, having private talks with each sister every two or three months; planning ongoing formation classes to deepen and enrich our understanding of our blessed vocation; giving novitiate classes; all these fit into her full agenda, along with correspondence with friends, benefactors, priests and religious all over the world. And she expected the same generosity of her spiritual daughters, bidding us to always aspire to be the first to come to the work and the last to leave. She would say, “My share in community life is all I can possibly give!” And she gave it, gladly, fully, daily, all the days of her life. She could not understand a halfhearted giving. Once when the service of abbess was described to her as a “burden,” she cried, “Oh, you don't understand; it's not a burden, it's a privilege!”
The years would bring a constant increase of “privileges” as her responsibilities expanded. Her service as federal abbess required a tremendous outpouring of generous love as she was called upon to visit each federated monastery. But again, this was all joy. She rejoiced that she knew personally each sister in the federation, and she rejoiced to serve each community in whatever way was needed. When the time came for the revision of our Constitutions, the clear-sighted Mothers and sisters of the federation asked our Mother to write an entirely new text, and a profoundly inspiring document was born from Mother's burning love of her Poor Clare vocation and her penetrating understanding of it. The labors involved in this undertaking brought Mother low with exhaustion and a serious case of mononucleosis. Hospitalized, she was supposed to rest and recuperate. Instead, she continued to peck out the Constitutions on a small portable typewriter that she would use while lying in bed, to the utter consternation of the Sister-nurses who cared for her. The text was completed during this hospital stay, and we have never forgotten that it was sealed with this sign of the Cross.
But the call to serve the federation was not the only summons to her generous heart. Bishops would reach out to her with invitations, sometimes pleas, for a monastery of cloistered contemplatives in their diocese. Six times she would journey “forth and abroad”: twice to sustain with new members monasteries that were failing; four times to bring to birth a new house of prayer in the Church. Six times she was called to the manifold labors involved with a new foundation. The fifth call was to found a monastery in Holland; surely not a land with promise for a new springtime of vocations! But her trust in God, her stubborn hope and her generous love made the faith-filled response that brought forth an immense encouragement to many faithful Catholic Nederlanders. As she approached her eightieth year, the sixth “forth and abroad!” was sounded, this time to Chicago, where the monastery from which Roswell had sprung no longer existed. Her generous heart responded once again with a loving “fiat!” to God's summons, and she had the joy of completing the circle, from Chicago to Roswell in 1948, and back to Chicago in the great Jubilee Year 2000. All these labors were accomplished by an indomitable spirit in a very frail body, and sickness would often accompany or follow her many travels.
Her generosity also expressed itself in sharing. Sharing was Mother's word. She would often say, when sharing something that delighted her own heart, “My joy isn't complete until I can share it with you!” When she would return from the visitation of another monastery, we would always gather together in the chapter room for several evenings as she and her companion would recount the highlights of their adventures. Her very poetry was the sharing of the inmost thoughts and desires of her heart, and she shared it simply and confidently, knowing we would understand and find it precious. And there were the small, endearing sharings: as she grew older, she would often need a throat lozenge before the Divine Office, to facilitate chanting. The sister who helped her remove the obstinate little cellophane wrapper was always asked, “Do you need one, too?” Even in her last illness, as we would feed her custard or ice cream, she would gesture with her finger that we were welcome to take some, too. So it was: always, always, sharing.
Hers was a valiant heart. The period of turmoil and confusion after the Second Vatican Council was no time for the timid soul. She defended the values of authentic religious life with courage and clarity, but also with kindness, good humor and balance. She never indulged in vitriol, harshness or sarcasm when engaging in controversy, nor did she descend to criticism of persons. Her gift for perceiving the essential issues of a matter and going to the root of a problem were invaluable at this time of confusion and foggy thinking. She understood the necessity of wearing an outward sign of our consecration, and her explanation of our religious garb was so clear and beautiful that one could only wonder how anyone could put aside the traditional habit that she so treasured. She perceived the value of our monastic enclosure and defended it resolutely; but always with gentle respect and courtesy.
From childhood, Mother suffered from severe scoliosis of the spine. This meant continual back pain, all her long life. As age and other infirmities increased, we saw her courage on a daily basis. We would suggest she sleep through the night rather than rise at midnight for the Office of Matins, thus giving her weary back a much-needed space for recuperation. Unimaginable! “I must be at the Office!” We would see her sitting at her desk in Ave Maria, her small office, typing away at letters, even though this particular activity was especially difficult for her, and would always result in an aching back. No matter, she had work to do. Her valiant heart was always finding ways to give, and never drawing back at paying the cost.
Hers was an ecclesial heart. She loved Holy Mother Church, and she taught us to do likewise. Her heart was deeply stirred when she heard the dictum of Saint Augustine, that the measure in which one loves the Church is the measure in which one has the Spirit. Her love for the Vicar of Christ was unbounded. In a time when it was “fashionable” to deride Pope Paul VI, she was stalwart in her defense of him and loyal in her affection for him. The day that Holy Mother Church definitively approved our new text of Constitutions was a day of profound joy and thanksgiving, because she knew that the blessing of the Church would make this legislation a channel of God's grace to those who observed it. She truly echoed the cry of Saint Teresa of Avila: “I am a daughter of the Church!”
Her love for the Church flowed naturally into love of the liturgy. She did not just live the liturgical year, she plunged into it with faith-filled enthusiasm. The seasons of the Church were her life, and everything in our daily monastic living was to express this reality. An accomplished organist, she selected postludes with great care and sensitivity, solicitous that each one express the meaning of the feast. Solemnities were enhanced with special reflections on the meaning of the feast, shared in the refectory after dinner. And that dinner would have been festive, as it was imperative that the menu express the joy of the Church in the mystery or saint being celebrated.
The greatest treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist, was truly the center of Mother's life. Her period of adoration was precious to her, and would not be sacrificed, no matter how pressing the other demands on her time. She expanded the time for Eucharistic adoration from two to six days of the week, and would refer to our private hours of adoration as our “tryst” with our Eucharistic Jesus. As abbess, she was privileged to open and close the tabernacle for communal adoration, offering incense before the altar of God. This was always done with the deepest reverence and prayerfulness, as was every genuflection and prostration, every Sign of the Cross.
Mother's heart was the heart of a poet, exquisite in its sensitivity, delicate in its perception of her God: “I hear the sound of You in my heartbeats counting Your steps down every moment of my life.” She exulted in the tiny golden crocus of early spring shouldering its way through a gravel path to make its small radiant statement of God's glory. When a gift box of fruit would arrive, she would admire the delicate pink blush on a golden apple, and lift it up for all to marvel with her at God's artistry. Even as she lay in the infirmary those last weeks of her life, she would gaze through the window at the broad spread of New Mexico sky. One morning she said to the sister at her bedside, “Do you see that tiny wisp of a cloud right there? It's as if God took His paintbrush and brushed the sky.” She was in love with the God of beauty, and found Him everywhere. She delighted in the sunlight, and any monastery that our Mother had planned would have large windows and many of them. When she built the novitiate wing on the Roswell monastery, a long hall was required to connect the new building. It would be lightsome and full of windows, planned Mother. Yes, agreed the architect; but he gently explained to her that there had to be enough wall between the windows to hold up the roof!
Hers was a quintessentially Franciscan heart. One week after her death, a sister was reflecting on how Mother had helped her. She mentioned her wonderful talents of mind and heart and spirit, all she did for the community, the Order and the Church. “But do you know how she helped me most of all? She was a happy Poor Clare and she loved her vocation.” Mother's joy and gratitude in being a daughter of Saints Francis and Clare was unbounded. She could never stop marveling that the community had actually received her and kept her! A true daughter of the Little Poor Man of Assisi, she loved “Lady Poverty,” and strove with all her heart to keep our life, both interior and exterior, simple and uncluttered. She abhorred clutter on any level, and instituted “Make Way” days in the monastery, when each sister would inspect her cell and her charges and remove (with due permission) any unwanted accumulations.
She wrote in the Constitutions that this Franciscan poverty is “characterized by joy and lightness of heart.” The Franciscan joy that dances through the pages of A Right to Be Merry was beautifully, vibrantly evident in the person of the author. She discovered joy in every facet of our seraphic vocation, and she communicated it to all who came within her radiance. She knew well the value of one intangible commodity begotten of joy: laughter. She taught us the wonderful wisdom of laughing at ourselves when that “self” was growing ponderous with worry or pompous with self-concern. She taught us the wonderful lubricating power of laughter in sticky situations, when all that was needed was good humor, a laugh, or an understanding smile. Her extremely quick wit was never used to wound, but was ever present and ever delightful. Even in her last illness she would amaze us with her light-hearted sallies of humor. One afternoon in the infirmary a sister was singing to her, and not quite hitting the notes “firm and true.” Another sister walked in, and the singer remarked, “Oh, here comes someone who can sing on pitch.” Mother's eyes flew open in mischievous wonder as she asked, “In our community?” She often exhorted us to resolve each day, “I'm going to make this a happy place in which to live,” and she showed us how it was done.
Like her seraphic Father, she had a singing heart. Music was part of the very fiber of her being. She directed our choir with deep sensitivity, and expected us all to give our best, always, as she did herself. She loved to play the organ, and did so with taste and artistry. At choir practice she would try to impart her sensitive understanding of music. Playing an intonation on the organ, she would ask, “What was wrong with that?” then proceed to explain exactly what had been lacking, to “sensitize our ears.”
In the final weeks of her earthly life, music would comfort and console her in her pain and weariness. A simple hymn, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee”, would quiet her when she was restless, or “Ave Maria”, or the words of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Hear my little one, what I now tell you, let nothing ever trouble or afflict you.” Sometimes when she would make little groans from the intense pain, we could hear her making her moans into a kind of humming song. Just a few hours before her death, the sister at her side heard her suddenly break into a little hoarse song for just a few seconds, whispering this little scrap of song into the ear of her Beloved, who was on His way.
Her Franciscan heart was ever grateful. She would marvel at the gift of memory, and she used it to remember every benefit and every blessing. Constantly she would exhort us to be grateful: grateful to God, to our benefactors, to one another. She showed us how to do it, up to the very end: grateful for the smallest service a sister might render, grateful to be feeling a little better, grateful for the sunshine. One morning as she lay in bed she smiled at the sister standing beside her and said, “I have a whole fleet of private nurses!” meaning her Poor Clare daughters. For her, as for Saint Francis, everything was an undeserved gift.
Like the Little Poor Man of Assisi, she was courteous. She loved to quote Hilaire Belloc's verse: “Yet in my walks it seems to me/ That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.” Her politeness was deep and genuine and universal, and nothing and no one was excluded from its sweep. She handled things with care, she spoke with refinement, she treated every person with considerate graciousness. She cherished her ladyhood and taught us to do likewise, insisting on mannerliness and politeness. While she accomplished an amazing quantity of work in one Poor Clare day, we never saw her rushing about or hasty; all things were accomplished with a kind of elegance that reminded us of our Father St. Francis' words to the Poor Ladies at San Damiano, “Each one of you will one day be a queen, crowned in heaven with the Virgin Mary.”
The first followers of our holy Father Francis were known as “the joyful penitents from Assisi.” She exulted in God's gift of his mercy, received in the sacrament of penance. Confession day was an especially happy occasion for her, as was our weekly chapter day. She would often speak of “the joy of being forgiven”, or “happy penitence”, or “life-giving repentance.” Before the great feasts of the Church year we would gather at a vigil chapter, wherein each sister would confess one fault (of the many!), with Mother starting us off with her own humble request for pardon. This, she would remind us, was the way a true Franciscan prepared to celebrate!
She had a great love for the Franciscan devotion of the Stations of the Cross. Up until the very last years of her life, we would see her in choir each morning before Holy Mass, making the Way of the Cross with reverent love. She would encourage us all to make this an integral part of our life of prayer, and her example was the most compelling encouragement possible.
Hers was an eminently loyal heart. She was faithful and loyal to all her sisters, steadfastly believing the best of them, seeing the potential greatness in each one and stubbornly hoping that greatness into the light. When our weaknesses were glaringly evident to all, she insisted that we could turn them into our strengths: the fiery, impatient spirit was exhorted to use that enthusiasm to serve God with greater energy; the oversensitive soul was guided to channel that sensitivity outwards to consideration of others. She was loyal to her innumerable friends, and each friendship was unique, deep, true and enduring.
Mother's heart was a bridal heart; she was a woman in love with Love. Her silver jubilee remembrance card proclaimed, “How right it is to love You!” and her every deed underlined that proclamation. Her poems, most of them written during her retreats before her yearly renewal of vows on July 26, are fragrant with love for her Bridegroom, and full of wonder at having been “spoken for by the Lord Most High King.” They also express exquisitely the sacrificial demands of bridal union with Jesus lived in the darkness of faith, and the joy that flowers from embracing the cross. She wrote, “What will keep the religious faithful in her consecration except a profound and tender love for a Divine Bridegroom?”
Finally, her heart was that of a mother. She nurtured her daughters by believing in them and trusting in their goodness. When Mother thought you were so good, how could you disappoint her by being otherwise? Thus were discovered unexpected depths and strengths, simply because a mother believed in her daughters. By loving each daughter as her favorite, she taught us to cherish one another. With the patience of a true mother, she was willing to repeat the lesson until it was learned, wait for the slow grower and encourage the weary. She loved to teach, and did so brilliantly. Before she was abbess, she instructed the young sisters in Latin and Gregorian chant with great care, instilling in them a love for the language and music that are our Christian heritage. A true mother, she was possessed of a tremendous love for the young, and a belief in the young people of today, knowing that they were equal to the challenge of the traditional Poor Clare life and in need of no “watering down” to suit their imagined weakness. She loved to nurture life on every level – spiritual, intellectual, cultural, social – and she loved to watch her daughters grow! Right up until her fall in December 2005, she very happily visited the novitiate and gave them spiritual conferences, to the mutual delight of instructor and instructed.
Deeply devoted to Our Lady, the model of all mothers, she turned to her in every need and bade us do likewise. So it was most fitting that her ultimate “forth and abroad!” was sounded on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. She leaves us aching with sorrow for the loss of her vibrant, loving physical presence among us. But she is not lost to us as long as her example and her teaching live on in our memories and take flesh in our lives. She leaves us in mourning, but richly endowed with purpose and direction, confident in the hope that she will continue to guide us with her prayer. We know that we have been privileged to live in the presence of true spiritual greatness, and our hearts are that much closer to heaven for having known Mother Mary Francis of Our Lady. Her spiritual daughters ardently hope to continue the great Franciscan song of love that was her life's melody and, with all our energies, all our love, give it wings for a new century and a new generation, unto that day when, together again, we will enjoy our eternal right to be merry.
Mother Mary Angela, P.C.C. (abbess)
Blessing of St. Clare sung by Mother Mary Francis