Two nuns, gone from us now, leave behind a gift of goodness

September 14, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

THIS MONTH HAS claimed two of my favorite nuns, the fabled Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Sister Mary Sulpice, who at 105 succumbed in her monastery's infirmary in the western hills of Massachusetts.

I saw Mother Theresa just once, the day she came to her Gift of Hope Convent on Collington Avenue in East Baltimore, which also houses a hospice for the terminally ill, often AIDS patients recently released from prison.

A large crowd gathered, and she didn't disappoint as she climbed the steps of the church pulpit next door and spoke. Her message was conservative -- pray often and stick to the rules. She touched upon important issues in life -- maintain the integrity the family, "every child is God's child," never give up.

But as much as the content of her talk, I remember her gait, her deliberate steps as she charged up an alley called Duncan Street behind the Gift of Hope. As she paced its scarred asphalt, her white sari, trimmed in azure blue stripes, reflected the August sun. She seemed the strongest person in the crowd. The face, recorded in so many photographs, was unforgettable.

Not much has been written since Mother Teresa's visit about the work her sisters are doing in Baltimore. They keep the strict observance of prayer, good works and no publicity. They exist on the charity of others. They don't own or drive cars. Their volunteers change the sheets and run the bedpans.

You don't read mawkish stories about the sisters or lay volunteers at Gift of Hope, because that isn't what this place is about. The works performed here are silent. You don't see television cameras. You don't see the sisters giving press interviews. This is not a boutique charity, with publicity committees, chic fund-raisers and donors' names etched into stone over the door.

While Mother Teresa understood the dignity of the poor, my other favorite nun, Sister Sulpice, understood the dignity of her students. The two women, of course, were not in the same league. Mother Teresa was a world figure. Sister Sulpice lived much of her her life behind the walls of a cloistered monastery. She taught the children of Baltimoreans who could afford to pay private school tuition.

Yet, I saw in the faces of each a life of prayer, an iron will and an unbending morality. Each shared another gift, that of an understanding of the sweetness of life, a virtue we don't promote these days.

They dedicated their lives to seeing the bright side of things. The words despair, depression and negativity were not in their vocabularies. In both women, I saw composure, joy and stability.

Had Sister Sulpice taught me in school, I doubt I would have measured up to her rigorous standards. She was a perfectionist who asked the same from her pupils. Her manner was formal, yet she exuded a cheerfulness and positive philosophy that has served me well when things don't seem to be going the right way.

I went to see her often. I just liked to sit in the monastery's visiting parlor on my side of the wood screen that separated us. I listened to her talk, to her observations uttered in the soft tones and cadences of a fine Old Maryland accent.

Sister Sulpice had long outlived her own siblings, but she often spoke with such affection of my own brothers and sisters and how, on his first day of school, my younger brother marched up to her and said, "Hello, my name is Eddie Kelly."

At times I couldn't figure out just what Sister Sulpice meant. One day we were speaking of Louise Malloy, who 100 years ago was one of the first of her gender to work for a Baltimore newspaper.

Sister Sulpice dipped deep into her memory bag and recalled how the reporter, upon hearing that she had inherited a goodly sum of money, perished on the spot. "She died of joy," was Sister Sulpice's explanation. No more was said.

I don't know if that's the way I'd put it, but it certainly places a good face upon what others might call a massive heart attack. Sister Sulpice never did have time for wallowing in pity.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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