Funeral Liturgy for Sister Eileen Byrne, OP
April 1, 2015
Jeremiah 18:1-7 — 1 Thess. 4:13-18 — John 14:1-6
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
In her 91st year of life, her 69th year as a Dominican Sister, Eileen Byrne, also known for many years as Sister Jean Catherine, came to know deeply what it means to acknowledge Jesus as our “Way, our Truth and our Life.” We celebrate her passage into new life during Holy Week, that time in our liturgical calendar when we confront “head-on,” once again, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery. It is our time of special remembrance of the incorporation of all of us into that great mystery at our Baptism. What a time to die! – to be raised up! (I think she planned it!)
In the portion of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse that we just heard from John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Eileen strove to know that way and to follow it all the days of her life. She took very seriously the Gospel call to discipleship. Along the happy route of childhood and adolescence, as the first-born of six children of John and Katherine Woods Byrne, she grew up in New Rochelle, New York (She would tell you at 47 Verdun Ave.), attended Holy Family grade school and St. Gabriel High School there, and then went on to Trinity College in Washington, D.C.
Our Potter God, about whom we heard in the first reading, continued to shape the malleable clay of this beautiful young women into a discerning person of deep commitment to a life of service. Along with that, a love of learning, appreciation of literature and art, and, indeed, of all things beautiful, led to a life choice within the very compatible Dominican tradition. Having finished college in 1945, she entered the Newburgh Dominicans in 1946, following a year of work of service to the poor with the Guardian Society in New York City.
The story of the potter in the Jeremiah passage we heard has Yahweh say to the prophet: “Make your way to the potter’s house; there I shall let you hear what I have to say.” After observing the work of the potter’s wheel, one clay vessel would be created, and then the potter “would start afresh and work it into another vessel.” That might well describe Eileen’s progression in her life of service, first as a Newburgh Dominican and then, for the past 20 years, as a Dominican Sister of Hope. From teaching grade school in New York (Rosendale and Newburgh) to high school teaching in New Jersey and New York (Paterson and Passaic in NJ, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie in NY). she moved to her last place of what we call active ministry for over 30 years in pastoral work at St. Helena’s parish in the Bronx. Among a variety of responsibilities there, most outstanding and happiest for her was her ministry with the senior citizens, attending to their needs and working for their rights, often in collaboration with other church and civic groups.
After those very productive years, there were still remaining over 14 years of very significant ministry (active in a very different way) from wheelchair and special recliner chair and sick bed. “Yes,” says Yahweh, “as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine.”
Suffering often brings clarity and inner transformation. For over 14 years Eileen suffered the results of a severe stroke. Physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, further surgery—she endured it all—from Helen Hayes Rehab in Haverstraw, New York, to Mt. St. Mary Infirmary in Newburgh, to Andrus-on-Hudson in Hastings, New York – with stints in St. John’s Hospital, Yonkers and Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, to St. Catherine’s Health Care facility in Caldwell, New Jersey. The Potter seemed to render the clay of Sister Eileen ever more malleable. Those of us privileged to accompany her closely during these last years can attest to the marked “re-shaping” we observed in her. Under extremely challenging circumstances, for many years, a number of Eileen’s personality traits served her well. She had always been determined and persevering and strong-willed – all of which can sometimes come across as stubbornness, a trait that is not apt to endear one to health-caregivers or others, but which, along with a strong faith, does help to sustain some degree of control over one’s very compromised capacity for movement.
She had, also, always been highly perceptive about people and fiercely honest about her perception of right and wrong. We saw these qualities (gifts, really) re-formed, re-shaped into a grace-full vessel of inspiration to us. The Potter God at work with malleable clay.
I began this reflection by noting Eileen’s life-long effort to know “the Way” and her very serious insertion into the role of disciple of Jesus Christ. I can personally testify that her deepest desire always but most transparently in her last days, was simply union with God through Jesus. She believed, indeed she seemed to know, that only such union would remove any and all fears and only that union would bring her genuine peace. It was really all she hoped for. And now I believe she knows that union, with its consequent profound peace, in all its fullness. Jesus says, “I am going to prepare a place for you . . . so that where I am, you may be, too.” May she rest now in that place of deep peace, celebrating her most glorious Easter ever.
Beth McCormick, OP