Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part II

February 6, 2015

By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist

This is the second in a series of profiles of sisters living with serious illness.

Photo 6 Sr Mary Ann Walsh and Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II and Sister Mary Ann met while she covered Rome for Catholic News Service from 1983 to 1986. Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano.

After a nearly 30-year career as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and Rome, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who is 67, has returned to the Sisters of Mercy’s convent in Albany, New York, to live out her final days with metastatic breast cancer. There her sisters lift her up daily in prayer and in practical ways.

They vie to push her wheelchair into the chapel for morning Mass and to the dining room, including a 90-year-old sister who says she was “certified” by the convent’s staff nurse for this duty. One sister brings Sister Mary Ann toast in the morning, when her appetite is weak. Others make her bed, do her laundry and help her with personal care.

“Mercy has jumped in from every corner to help me, in ways both large and small,” says Sister Mary Ann softly. “I want for nothing.”

Sister Mary Ann was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. At the time, she was serving as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.—the first woman to hold that position—and had already made a name for herself as one of the era’s preeminent Catholic journalists. Sisters of Mercy and other sisters cared for her and companioned her in prayer as she underwent a mastectomy and recovered from a life-threatening infection that followed.

In a Huffington Post blog in 2012, called “The nuns who form us,” Sister Mary Ann pointed out that “nuns surrounded me” after her diagnosis. “[They] helped run my life when I couldn’t run my own. They prayed with and for me, cooked meals, filled out insurance forms, helped me make wise decisions, accompanied me to appointments and offered encouragement I never dreamed I’d need.”

And then, for several years, all was well. Sister Mary Ann resumed work at her usual breakneck pace, doing everything from helping American bishops respond to the sex abuse crisis to coordinating the media efforts of the U.S. cardinals during the 2013 papal transition (a task she had also handled in 2005).

In July 2014, Sister Mary Ann was named U.S. church correspondent for America, becoming the first woman religious to serve on the Jesuit weekly’s editorial staff. Before leaving the bishops’ conference, she had her annual physical—and was surprised when her doctor informed her that her liver numbers were off. Tests that followed showed that breast cancer had not only returned, but that it had also spread to her brain, bones and lungs.

“My oncologist was stunned, my primary care doctor was stunned and I was stunned that I had this aggressive, turbo-charged cancer,” said Sister Mary Ann. She had to make some tough decisions and decided to return to Albany, New York. She was told that “a SWAT team [would] clear out your apartment in no time,’” recalled Sister Mary Ann.

The “SWAT team” of two Mercy sisters and two Mercy Associates drove to Silver Spring, Maryland, in mid-September to collect Sister Mary Ann’s personal belongings. Before the caravan headed back to New York, Sister Mary Ann received the sacrament of the sick.

Photo 15 Sr Mary Ann jubilee

Sisters Mary Ann (left) and Amy, friends for over 25 years, visited at Sister Mary Ann’s golden jubilee. Photo by Sister Judith Kapp.

This “underutilized sacrament,” she wrote in her America blog, “…immersed me in the love of the church, a profound experience that drove home the fact that as part of the Christian community, I do not stand alone when facing troubled times.”

Sister Mary Ann’s “deep, abiding faith in God’s love and God’s support” impresses Sister Amy Hoey, a close friend for over 25 years. “It’s real old-fashioned Irish faith that is deep in her and that she has shared with me and others in this part of her journey,” says Sister Amy, who first met Sister Mary Ann when they were both working in Washington in the late 1980s.

Although Sister Amy is now living in New Hampshire, she is a frequent visitor to Albany. She and Sister Mary Ann also pray the Mercy morning prayer over the phone daily. “It has become very important for me and, I think, for her,” says Sister Amy reflectively. “I can check on her voice, on how strong she is, when we pray and share our intentions and updates.” (Sister Mary Ann shares below how her prayer life is helping her cope with cancer.)

Sister Mary Ann had been attracted to the Sisters of Mercy’s fourth vow of service as a high school student serving others through volunteer work with the Legion of Mary. Receiving Mercy instead of giving it “is very hard,” she says. “I feel undeserving. I don’t think I’ve ever been as good to people as they have been to me these past few months. But they assure me that I have!”

Her experience of cancer “is like a living wake,” continues Sister Mary Ann. “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.”
Most profound of all, says Sister Mary Ann, has been the support of Sisters of Mercy in Albany and elsewhere. “Mercy sees your needs before you see them and it’s just been overwhelming,” she says. “It’s been a great embracing by the Mercy family.”

Sustained by Scripture, spiritual reading, the rosary & traditional prayers

When Sister Mary Ann awakens these days at 3 a.m., she finds herself turning to traditional prayers like the “Memorare:”

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.


It’s a prayer she has always loved and sent to family members when they were sick. Now she is the one who needs the sustenance provided by these beautiful words.

Photo 1 Sr Mary Ann Walsh with prayer shawl

Sister Mary Ann takes comfort in a prayer shawl given to her by a former colleague. Photo by Catherine Walsh/Northeast Communications.

The Scriptures have also taken on new meaning for Sister Mary Ann since she learned that she had metastatic breast cancer last summer. “At a time like this, you see things in the Scriptures in a whole new way, you hear things differently,” she says. “Maybe part of it is having time to listen.”

Although she has lost sight in her right eye because of a brain tumor, Sister Mary Ann started reading the Rev. James Martin’s book Jesus: A Pilgrimage on a recent retreat. “Jim is a very good writer. He’s on a trip [to Jerusalem] with a friend and you get his anecdotes, which can be funny,” she says. “You also learn a lot from his research, and his observations are so clear and crisp. It’s an excellent book.”

Praying the rosary is also something that gives Sister Mary Ann comfort; it became a habit while driving to work in Washington, D.C. “I used to say that the rosary was my antidote to road rage,” she says with a chuckle. “You can’t swear and say a Hail Mary at the same time.”

During liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent, Sister Mary Ann joins other Sisters of Mercy in Albany in following the online prayers of the Irish Jesuits through their “Sacred Space” website. Daily Mass and praying the Mercy morning prayer are powerful reminders of the truth at the heart of her life, says Sister Mary Ann. “The whole Community is with me,” she says. “I’m told all the time, ‘You have no idea how many people are praying for you!’”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh passed away on April 28, 2015. Living God, we pray that by sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, we may come to know the power of his resurrection. May we be sustained by the eucharist and by our love for one another as we journey home. May those who have preceded us in death enjoy eternal life. And may those who mourn be assured that their loved ones now see you face to face.

You can read Sister Mary Ann’s obituary online. More prayers of the Sisters of Mercy are available here.

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  1. Pingback: Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, part 1 | Connect With Mercy: The Official Blog of the Sisters of Mercy

  2. Barry McLoughlin

    I had the very great privilege of working closely with Sister Mary Ann Walsh since 1997 when we began delivering the media seminars for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We traveled all over the United States and her steadfast and insightful comments were always a terrific contribution to the experience for all participants.
    Her down-to-earth advice, along with her humorous Irish take on life stands out as powerful memories of her personality, devotion and abiding faith.
    She has lifted all for so many years with her abundant talents. Laura and I can only offer our profound gratitude and prayers for her. No one can replace her; we can only feel honoured to have known and worked with her.

  3. Laura Peck

    It is a wonderful thing to know that Sister Mary Ann and I start the day with the same prayer, ‘The Memorare”. I joined with Sister Mary Ann and Barry throughout the past 18 years of seminars for the USCCB and I had the privilege of getting to know her professionally and personally. I am deeply saddened at the profoundly sad news of her health, but I am uplifted by what she has shared about her journey and how her deep faith has been such a comfort to her and all of us. God bless Sister Mary Ann! May the road rise to meet you!
    With love and prayers.

  4. Celine Baca Radigan

    Sister Mary Ann Walsh was my “ go to” person when I became Director of Communications/Media for the Archdiocese 13 years ago. A guardian angel to many of us in the field. Her wisdom, kindness and instantaneous responses to my queries helped guide me through the myriad of complexities in the World of Communications. I will be forever grateful and keep her in prayer.

  5. Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min.

    Over all the years I have known Sr. Mary Ann, continuously read her literary contributions and admired her particularly for her communications leadership role as a woman religious and celebrated her gift of her life to the Church. She has inspired us all with her humility, dedication and inspiring words that often challenged and awakened us to new realities for reading the signs of the times.
    Sr. Mary Ann is remembered in our prayers each day with gratitude!

  6. Renae Bauer

    Sister Mary Ann,

    I hope you know how amazing you are. From the little corner of the world known as the Diocese of Green Bay (Wis.), I occasionally called you for help and you always — always — responded. You responded with clear and accurate information and you delivered it professionally and gracefully. I often wondered how you did your job under what I imagined were difficult and stressful circumstances. All of us communicators were blessed by your work at USCCB and I thank you.

    May you find peace, comfort and love during these days.

    God be with you,
    Renae Bauer

  7. Annette Magjuka

    Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, may your remaining time on this planet be full of the love, appreciation and support described in this beautiful article. I especially appreciate your comment that the experience of cancer “is like a living wake.” When my mom was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer at age 59, she invited us all for mass and last rights in our home. I remember thinking this is like attending Mom’s funeral with her sitting right here! It is a healing balm for me to remember that beautiful day, and the days that followed when we all told Mom what she means to us and how we will never, ever forget. Everyone should understand how much it helps when someone accepts the gift of care. The time caring for Mom at home in her final months is a time that I will never forget and a time that taught me so much about love, grace and faith. My Mom taught me how to live, and also how to die. God bless Sr. Mary Ann!!! Sending the love of Christ.

  8. Jeanne Hanline

    Dear Sr. Mary Ann, know good thoughts and prayers come your way. Thank you for the direction you gave, the knowledge you shared, the dignity you always displayed and the many kindnesses you extended.

  9. Mary Ross Agosta

    You are in my heart and my prayers. You gave us your talent and we are all better communicators because of you. You ask “when did I do all that?”…each day of your life.

    As we like to say in the Irish circles – Mind Yourself.

    With love and affection, always your friend.

  10. Sr Rose Pacatte, FSP

    I have known Sr. Mary Ann for many years. I remain grateful to her for all she has done for communication in the Church, in fidelity and with relevance. I pray that the Lord whom she has served with love will continue to be her consolation and strength. Thank you, Sr. Mary Ann!

  11. Eugene Fisher

    I knew Sr. Mary Ann rather well during her time with the USCCB. A total professional, she knew how to say what needed to be said, representing the bishops, without embarrassing anyone. I believe this came from the Spirit and her humble sense of charity and mercy to all. She has been a blessing for all who knew her.
    Eugene Fisher

  12. Bishop Kevin Vann

    I first got to know Sister Mary in the l980’s when I was a graduate student at the Angelicum and living at the Casa Santa Maria. A lot of us were on pilgrimage during Lent together during the Roman Stational Masses! I got to know her at those Lenten Masses and then at the North American College and the Casa Santa Maria gatherings. She was one of the family for us North American priests and seminarians. Years later, when I was appointed BIshop of Fort Worth, she and Barry helped me through some very challenging times in the early years in Fort Worth. She was very well respected by our comm. director. I always liked to stop and see her and visit with her when I was at the USCCB over the years. I very much valued her wisdom, faith, good common sense, and love for the Body of Christ. She helped me too appreciate more and more how Faith is communicated in so many ways! Know of my prayers and support for her and the community in these days.

  13. Sr. Susan Wolf, SND

    Thank you so much for this article. I know Sister Mary Ann from my years in Silver Spring. She is a great woman of the Church, a dedicated religious, an excellent journalist and great fun to be with. My prayers are with and for her at this time in her life. They are filled with gratitude and admiration.

  14. Elizabeth Chircop

    You remind me of my sister whose name was mary Ann and she was a nun like you! she too had all the help she needed from her sisters at the convent! They were all wonderful with her! god bless you Sister and be with you all the time!

  15. John Feister

    She is a great woman and a great Sister. Having watched her up close as she went through bishops’ travails, year after year, I was constantly impressed by her faithful, dogged commitment–and her wry sense of humor. When we had dinner together, always, this woman who orchestrated papal events and national responses to bishops’ crises, she first was interested to hear how the kids and family are doing. What a powerful witness to simplicity, friendship and deep humanity! Thanks, Cathy, for such a fine article about her.

  16. mary ellen dougherty

    Dear Mary Ann, I do not remember making the comment to you that you attributed to me In the 2012 HUFFINGTON POST BLOG— God wants you to be well — but I probably did. At any rate, I am glad you did recover for a few years, And now, God obviously wants you to let go which you are also doing with grace and deep faith. Thank your for many things, but the thing I am want most to thank you for is for sharing yourself with me these past ten years. I wish I could be as present to you as you have been to me during my illness. Thank you, my friend. As I said about Jane, a mutual friend of ours who died a few years ago, “She learned that to surrender was to win.” You are winning , all the way.
    With love and gratitude.—-Mary Ellen Dougherty

  17. thomas.regan51@yahoo.com

    Dear Mary Ann, God BlessYou .You will be home soon.Tom Regan

  18. Suzanne Losa

    Dear Sister, The road you have traveled in this life has touched so many. You have definitely followed the vows you have taken and it appears that you are now letting others fulfill their goal of helping the sick. I know that on that beautiful day when you meet the Lord He will will be waiting with open arms,
    Please say a prayer for me. Suzanne

  19. Barb Wood

    Dear Mary Ann,
    I was a year behind you in Religious Life at 634 New Scotland Avenue.
    You were a member of a small but powerful “set” of women. I think of you laughing and enjoying life and I think of you being serious and cerebral. I am sorry to hear that you are facing this end stage of your life.
    I know you have made an amazing contribution to the literary field and church communication.
    I send you my love and any healing energy that may help you at this difficult time.
    You are in my thoughts and prayers.
    May the sun rise up to meet you and may your final road be filled with shamrocks and irish lullabies.
    Barb Wood

  20. Malleson Van Wyngarden

    I’m a Breast cancer survivor and I’ll pray for you, Sister Mary Ann. God bless.

  21. David Early

    For 10+ years, I had the privilege of working in the office next to Mary Ann’s. We proofread each others’ news releases and other work, commiserated over work frustrations, shared laughs, and became friends. She was the rock of the USCCB communications team and I learned much about my profession from her. It breaks my heart to know of her health challenges but her faith is an inspiration. My prayers are with you, SMAW.

  22. Barbara King

    Mary Ann,
    Thank you for your many years of help and inspiration to the Diocese of Savannah. You have been a model of how to keep your cool while sitting in the media hot seat on behalf of all of us in communications. Your keen understanding of the religious issues of the day and ability to present them in language accessible to all audiences is unmatched. God bless you as your present journey enables you to slow down and accept the kindness of others and catch up on your prayers and reading.

  23. Dianne Fraher Fodell

    Dear Sister Mary Ann, I am so sorry for what you are going through and will say lots of prayers. As one of your more challenging students at Mercy High School, I really do appreciate the amazing teacher you were for us in English and Journalism and appreciate all I learned from you and remember fondly being the Business Manager for the yearbook in 1974, which you supervised. Your years at Mercy brought us many Journalism awards for our newspaper “The Sojourner” and our yearbook “The Mercian.” I am so glad you are being cared for by the wonderful Mercy sisters and I wish you peace and love. Thank you for all you did for the Mercy girls.

  24. Steve Mamanella

    I was blessed to have the opportunity to work with — and learn from — Sr. Mary Ann during preparations for the visit of Pope John Paul II to St. Louis in 1999. I recall Sr. Mary Ann’s insistence that we give Papal Visit media credentials to a reporter and a photographer from a local public high school newspaper. Sr. Mary Ann deliberately credentialed these young people to sit amongst the credentialed national news reporters in a prime spot at the Trans World Dome for the Papal Mass. That one decision meant so much to the students, their parents, and their faculty advisor, but also, as Sr. Mary Ann predicted, was good for the national media present as well.

    Thanks for teaching me how to be a Catholic communicator, Sr. Mary Ann. God bless you!

  25. Maureen O'Hanlon Pease

    Dear Sister Mary Ann, Thank you for the knowledge and skills you shared with your students at Mercy High School — literature, composition, journalism, and so on, but most importantly the ability to think critically about what we see and hear. My prayers are with you.

  26. Charlotte Hays

    Dear Sister Mary Ann,

    One of the great good fortunes of my life is that I met you when we made that trip to Lebanon in 1986 as intrepid reporters. I have a framed picture of you and me and a Jesuit in front of sandbags (meant, I seem to recall, to protect people from being shot?). I remember you went boldly into a house in a neighborhood where you could near the sniper. I followed you in to interview the family, but I wondered if I’d ever have the courage to risk the sniper and leave the house. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that means such a great deal to me. At one particularly awful time in my life, a time of public humiliation, you called me. You can’t imagine how much I appreciated that. The most wonderful thing about being with you, however, Mary Ann, is that you are one of the funniest, wisest people I know (and perceptive enough to know I really mean this). I remember something you said about mercy, and I have often though about it, as mercy is something I desire for myself. I am thinking of you–and praying. Love, Charlotte .

  27. J. J. Ziegler

    When in years past I wrote freelance articles for various publications, Sister Walsh, rather than ignore my queries as she might have done, was wont to respond and put me in touch with the right USCCB staff member.

    Was it Belloc who said that the grace of God was in courtesy? Those words come to mind when I read Sister Walsh’s name.

    Holy Mary, pray for her. St. Ann, pray for her. Her holy guardian angel, pray for her.

  28. Sister Eleanor Granger OSF

    Sister Mary Ann is a symbol of HOPE, WISDOM, HUMOR and GOODNESS. I thank her for sharing all that with me while I lived in Silver Spring MD.

    She encouraged me to apply for a position in Silver Spring that was a challenge, a gift and brought me in contact with so many incredible Sisters, Brothers, Priests and FRIENDS.

    I am grateful to her and for her.

    Prayers and Blessings,
    Eleanor Granger OSF

  29. Joan Desmond

    Dear Sister Mary Ann,

    I just learned from Charlotte Hays about the recurrence of your cancer. I am so sorry to hear the news. I kept wondering why I had not seen your work as the Washington correspondent for America. Now I undersand.

    I wanted to express my thanks for all your help and support over the years. You have made a difference to my life, and the lives of many others. You have done more good than you know, and now your prayers up in Albany are continuing to bear spiritual fruits.

    I must add,however, that I am sad that you will not be writing r stories for America. Not only was I looking forward to reading them, I also assumed that you would enjoy the return to full blown journalism!

    Please be assured of my prayers.

    With blessings and friendship,

    Joan Desmond

  30. Patricia Considine Wason

    Sister Mary Ann – I am deeply saddened to learn of your illness.

    I remember and have always appreciated your wisdom and encouragement. You constantly challenged us to be our best.

    Our class recently celebrated our 40 year reunion. I fondly recalled my Mercy days as I glanced through the issues of Sojourn and The Mercian which we created under your guidance. I am especially proud of page 4 of Soujurn which I had to honor to contribute to and edit. I still have every issue.

    I have heard your comments on NPR over the years, and seen your books at Barnes and Noble. What a career you have had! And I knew you when . . .

    I wish you peace and comfort.

    Pat Considine Wason, MHS ’74

  31. Alexia Kelley

    Dear Sr. Mary Ann,

    Thank you so much for your inspiring writing and words, and for many years of courageous witness through journalism and media, all in service to our Church. Your dedicated media work and beautiful writing has touched many people, and helped to tell the story that needs to be told . Thank you! I have so appreciated the conversations we had over the years, you taught me many good lessons for which I am grateful. You are in my prayers, and those of so many, in your current journey. Thank you for all you have generously shared through writing so honestly about your health challenges and mercy. My prayers are with you,

  32. Anna Jarkowsky

    A Sister of Mercy’s Wonderful Life.

  33. Andre Dembowski RSM

    Mary Ann, You gifted us as you prepared to leave DC for Albany by giving us the chance to gather and celebrate with you a communal Anointing of the Sick. A powerful testimony to your relationship with God and others. All I could think of as each had a chance to speak with you personally was, “A heart centered in God.” Thank you for the many memories.

  34. Kathy Schongar

    Dear Sister Mary Ann,

    Thank you for for being a role model as a Sister of Mercy and as a writer. Your work first caught my eye in the Evangelist. As a high school journalism student, I read every word. Years later, I was impressed with your patience and kindness when, while writing for the St. Rose news magazine, I called to interview you concerning your book about Pope John Paul II. Although you had national and international issues to write about, you answered every question.

    You continue to bring your gift of words to the world. You make us think about contemporary issues and critical concerns, and to see them through the prism of Mercy that gives us direction. I am proud to know you, My thoughts and prayers are with you. You know the Sisters and Associates in the Albany area and beyond have your back through every step of your journey.


  35. Pingback: Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part III | Connect With Mercy: The Official Blog of the Sisters of Mercy

  36. Sister Eleanor Granger OSF

    Dear Mary Ann,

    I keep you in prayer and thank God for you in my life. THANK YOU for the numerous times we gathered in Silver Spring to pray, to laugh, to chat, to just be together as SISTERS.

    Thank you again for encouraging me to apply for a position at LCWR- a position that was a magnificent way to be a part of the National Religious Life. You were always encouraging and will always be someone that I admire deeply. BLESSINGS and GRATITUDE for who you are!
    Peace and all good,
    Eleanor, your Franciscan Sister in Rochester MN

  37. Fr. James Massa

    April 4, 2015

    Sister Mary Ann,

    On this Holy Saturday morning, I think of you during the time of preparation for the Great Feast of Easter. The parishioners of the Holy Name of Jesus here in the middle of Brooklyn, of which I am temporary administrator, is at this moment getting ready over at church for the evening’s welcome of the Risen Christ. As main celebrant at tonight’s Vigil, I will light the Easter Candle for you – and in thanksgiving for your friendship during our shared time at the USCCB; for your wisdom and integrity as a journalist for more than three decades; for the outpouring of your generous love as a Sister of Mercy in a variety of fruitful and memorable ministries.

    I only wish I could say these words to you in person to you. But know that in Brooklyn tonight there is a very tall candle burning brightly for you. May this flame—and others around the Church and country—“mingle with the lights of heaven… and be found still burning by the Morning Star who never sets and [who] sheds his peaceful light on humanity.” God bless you, Mary Ann!

    With affection in Christ,

    Fr. James Massa

    Diocese of Brooklyn
    Moderator of the Curia

  38. Pingback: Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part IV | Connect With Mercy: The Official Blog of the Sisters of Mercy