Mother Rosaria’s Passing into Eternal Life
From Her Abbess’ Perspective
“Mother Clare, slow down!” So did the hospice nurse whom I was leading through the front hall to the infirmary on Saturday morning awaken me to my leaving her several feet behind me. My mind flashed back to a day nearly 30 years ago, when an energetic Mother Abbess Rosaria similarly led a young cloister portress and a lagging workman through the cloister halls in our monastery in Newport News to some forgotten project. Despite Mother’s serious back condition and resulting numbness of one leg, she easily outstripped us. It had been years since Mother could move like that, but these last few days she had recovered her alacrity. Her decisions were always considered carefully, but once made, they were carried through with dispatch. And so it was with her last decision to welcome Sister Death.
Mother slept most of Thursday, having been given a small dose of morphine to alleviate her discomfort. Friday she awoke and occupied herself with giving many smiles and squeezing hard the hand of her Sister caregivers. At one point, she became very restless and asked repeatedly, “Get me out of here! Get me out of this bed! Get me up!” The Sisters tried to assist her to sit up, but it was in vain. Mother’s hospital bed, which had always been against one wall, had been turned a few days earlier so that she could see the snow fall. We had left the bed there in the middle of the room since it proved easier to attend her needs in that position. It was also now elevated to spare the backs of her caregivers. With the crucifix on the wall now at her head, Mother’s place of rest took on a striking resemblance to our altar in choir. Perhaps as she settled back on her pillows on Friday, she knew her bed had become her altar of sacrifice, and that there was only one way she would rise again.
Saturday began in the usual way. Sister Charitas and I attended to her before Matins and again before Lauds. Mother gave us her usual response. As is our custom on First Saturday, we had Chapter before Mass. Since it was also the vigil of Holy Mother Colette’s feast, the conference began with a reference to her seal on which were written the words, “Sisters, think of death for we must die”. St. Colette died many times before she was called to eternal life through her numerous sufferings. Mother Rosaria has also suffered many dyings during her life and so must we. Soon we will lead her to the threshold of the great dying and let her go like the dove being released from the ark. Such was the thread of this brief discourse.
After Mass, I checked on Mother to see if she was awake enough to receive Holy Communion. Finding her decidedly asleep, we determined that by noon the medicine she had been given would have worn off. Perhaps she would be able then to receive the Lord. During work blessing Postulant Sara, who was keeping watch with Mother, noticed that her breathing began to change. Sister Jean-Colette and Sister Maria came to attend to her, so Sara went out and told Sister Christine and Mother Vicaress whom she met on her way to the kitchen where the rest of us were gathered for vegetables. After being given the message myself, I hurried to the infirmary. Mother was breathing, but with long spaces between the breaths. I looked intently at her face. Was this death? “Shall we call the Sisters?” Mother Vicaress asked. “Yes”. Quickly the Sisters gathered around her bed. “Should we call Father?” I opened the cell phone. “Father? Mother is on her way to God. Can you come?” “Yes”. “And bring your oils?” “Yes” “Thank you, Father”. I called to Sara who had worked for the Red Cross to check Mother’s pulse. It was there. Some of the Sisters cried out their parting words to her: Mother, we love you! Mother we are sorry! Forgive us! Pray for us! Mother Vicaress spontaneously took the crucifix from the wall above Mother’s head and laid it on her breast. I asked for the prayer book and found the prayers for the dying. “Go forth Christian Soul…” Also, Holy Mother Clare’s words: “Go forth, blessed soul, for you will have a good Escort. He who has created you has loved you like a mother her little child…
Finally, word came that Father was at the door. “Sara, take her pulse”. Yes, it was still there, but very weak. “Mother, we are all here and Father is coming”. Father took my place at Mother’s head while I took her hand. The unnoticed background noise of the oxygen machine suddenly became obtrusive. As I pushed the power button it stopped with a definitive jerk. Father prayed the prayers of the Church, and the once warm hand I held gradually grew cold. There was no sign from her of the exact moment of her passing. She whose great suffering it was to give up her privacy in these last years, preserved this final secret between herself and her Spouse.
On the first day the hospice nurse had come, I told her we all wanted to be with Mother when she died. The nurse said, “Listen, if you are meant to be there, you will be there. If you are not meant to be there, you will not be there.” She then told me of how they had seen that people will arrange their deaths as they wish. If they want the family to be there, then they will wait until they are there. If they feel it would be too hard for someone, then they will wait until they are alone before they pass. Moms are notorious for the latter option. I was at peace. Knowing Mother’s lifelong desire to do everything properly, I was confident that her death would be done right. And so it happened. She waited until we were all there around her and she had received the Sacraments of the Church.
We lingered around her bed after Father left. The pulse was taken one last time, and no, it could not be found. I removed the oxygen tubing no longer needed. How still death is! Dying is all noise and tumult, while death is silence. We observed in quiet awe the slow but steady claiming of Sister Death as Mother’s face became ivory colored and the warmth of life departed from her limbs. Then it was time for those of us still journeying in the ark to take care of the necessary business of life.
As the funeral director told me, “It takes a year to prepare for a wedding and 3 days to prepare for a funeral. There are no RSVP’s”. The hospice nurse made official what we already knew. Fax machine, computer and telephone spread the news. Funeral arrangements made, obituary written, remembrance cards run, liturgy planned, and a thousand other details, sometimes inadequately handled. In addition, the snow which began to fall again as Mother lay dying created a winter wonderland appropriate for this Minnesota native, but also presented some logistical challenges. I asked her if she could do something about the weather, and she obligingly obtained from the Most High a cease and desist order by evening. Our good friend, Neal Lockwood, came with his tractor and cleared our entire driveway and sidewalk the next day. Brother Sun did the rest to make the roads passable enough for retired Bishop Sullivan, four other diocesan priests and a whole chapel full of our friends to join us for Mother’s Mass of Christian Burial on Monday. Mother’s body had been returned to us Sunday morning. Sister Christine, who had cared for Mother so faithfully, along with Mother Vicaress and myself, dressed and arranged her. We kept our last vigil with Mother throughout the day and night in choir until the funeral Mass.
We Poor Clare pallbearers, after being trained by the funeral directors, were able to move the casket into the sanctuary on Monday at 1:30 for the viewing, and back into place in the choir nave for the Mass at 3PM. We placed the funeral pall borrowed from the parish in nearby West Point on the casket. The crucifix which had lain on her breast was carried in the entrance procession by Sister Christine who placed it as the sign of faith on the pall. At the end of Mass, we all sprinkled Mother’s body with Holy Water, and then the lay pall bearers, taken from among our best friends, took her out the communion gates. I accompanied them while the rest of the community went out the back of choir and met the funeral cortege at the enclosure gates. Only the celebrants and pall bearers came to the cemetery. The low winter sun, heavenly sign and promise of the Resurrection, shone in our eyes as Mother’s body was positioned above the grave and the final prayers said.
Another storm has covered the fresh mound of earth in our cemetery with a white mantle of snow. Crumbs have been spread carefully in our courtyard for the little birds Mother loved so well. White cloths and flowers decorate the doors of the infirmary, as well as Mother’s place in the refectory and choir. Two heat pumps are out of order, the basement is leaking again, the plumber was here yesterday repairing a faucet. The many and sundry minutiae of life once again claim our attention, but perhaps with less urgency than before. Each of us is and will be called to the altar of sacrifice. On the way to recreation, I passed the infirmary and thought I should go in to check to see if Mother needs help. No, she does not need me anymore. My way of loving her now is to follow in her footsteps. I hope to do that in more ways than just walking too quickly down the cloister halls.
May God reward you for all your support and prayers throughout these last years of Mother Rosaria’s declining health. I am sure she who was always so grateful for the least service, is already working to bring you many blessings from the Lord of her heart.
Mother Mary Clare