By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist
This is the second in a series of profiles of sisters living with serious illness.
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.
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.
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.
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.