Tuesday, January 20, 2015

sister theresa merwin, mfic

On Saturday, January 17th, Sr. Theresa Merwin, mfic, slipped away from this world. Tomorrow her community of Franciscan Sisters, family, and dear friends gather in Boston to mourn her passing and celebrate her incredible life--a life that was wholly dedicated to education and social justice and peace.

Anyone who met Theresa, remembers her as the kindest and most gentle and patient person they've ever known. Her trademark was her ability to take your hands in hers and stroke them ever so tenderly while she conversed with you.  In that moment, all was right in the world.  

In nearly every photo I found of Theresa she is holding someone's hand or giving them a hug.
You could feel that same emotion in the letters she wrote, too. They were filled with lots of underlined words and capital letters and exclamation points, all there to drive home the central point that: "YOU are SPECIAL!!!" (She had a litany of words like "Marvelous!" and "Wonderful!" and "AMEN!" in her vocabulary. Those were the words she would underline many times in her letters or jubilantly exclaim during conversation.) Other people could say or write those things, but when they came from her it was with such sincerity that you truly believed it. 

Theresa was a force when it came to the power of prayer. Whether you needed just a good thought sent your way or a miracle for an impossible situation, Sr. Theresa was your woman. A couple years ago when I was scheduled to have surgery in La Paz, she called me the day before to ask what time the operation would begin. Theresa then assured me that at 9 am the next morning she and her steadfast friend Sr. Damon would light a candle in the chapel and pray for me. Laying on the operating table the following day, I immediately felt stronger, braver when the clock on the wall struck 9 am. I knew at that exact moment they were thinking of me.

On some level, her over-the-top kindness and goodness made her a bit naive about other things. The Sisters' good friends Nancy Murphy and Kimberly Lane, who visited the College often, would have all of us--Theresa included--roaring of laughter with stories of things Theresa had innocently said or done or misunderstood.  (Plus, it's hard to be much of a card shark when you're too busy fawning over your opponents in a game of "May I" to make sure their glass is full of Coke and their popcorn supply has been sufficiently replenished.) And yet, as one person pointed out in a Facebook post, Theresa had a very sly wit (one example was the "decoy purse" that she carried around the  streets of La Paz to fend off potential pick pockets). Like all the Franciscan Sisters I know, Theresa was a quick thinker and doer. 

Sr. Theresa pictured with her old friend Don José, a community member of Carmen Pampa.
Despite her incredibly kind demeanor, she was no pushover. I wouldn't say she was "strict" with students at the UAC, but she definitely held them to high standards. She knew very well when they were trying to sweet talk their way out of homework or getting permission for an excused absence. She stood firm on the College's attendance policy and class start times, which in Bolivian culture was often pushed to the limits. Sr. Damon, who was director of the College at the time, always used Theresa as an example for the volunteers who were hesitant to reprimand UAC students for poor attendance by reminding us that despite Theresa taking a hard line, students consistently gave her exceptionally high reviews in teacher evaluations. That's because students knew that whatever decisions she made, she made them fairly and out of love.  (To this day, most UAC graduates can recite the mission of the UAC word for word because Theresa taught it in a sing-song way. I have a clear picture of walking past her classroom and hearing them sing: "La misión de la UAC es hacer llegar la educación superior...." Theresa would be weaving her way around desks with her hands in the air as if she were conducting an orchestra.)

I have lots of fond memories of Theresa, but when I remember her, I see her wearing her brown Birkenstocks with dark socks, a long blue apron with her Tao dangling from a cord around her neck, and lots of thin colorful rubber bands around her wrists (her system for remembering things). I would often walk in the small kitchen of the convent in Carmen Pampa to find her shuffling around while she prepared a meal or dessert. As most visitors and volunteers know, Theresa was famous for her "Julia's Never Fail Chocolate Cake" with homemade mocha frosting. It was always on the table for newly arrived guests or birthday celebrations....along with a glass of Coca-Cola. (She prescribed Coca-Cola for headaches, stomachaches, altitude sickness, bad days, and just a chance to sit down and take a break. Every single person that came to the door was invited to sit down and have a class of Coke. I think the convent almost went broke at one point due to her Coke purchases!)

Sr. Theresa's last visit to Carmen Pampa for the College's 20th anniversary celebration in 2013.
Theresa, my son and I are pictured with Sr. Damon, Sr. Chris, and a UAC Nursing graduate
Hands down, my favorite story that Theresa told was about the time she hungrily ate two hard-boiled eggs that were place before her after a long ride on horseback in rural Peru, only to discover that the eggs were meant to be shared among four people. (It's the same story that Carmen Pampa Fund included for the first reading of the first week of Advent in our recent reflection and meditation booklet.) The first time I heard it I was sitting at the dining room table in the Sisters' house after our regular Sunday brunch. The profound lesson of her simple, yet powerful experience: "We are not here to teach people. We are here to learn from them." She kept that lesson in humility close to her heart in all that she did as a Franciscan Missionary Sister.

Of course I only knew Theresa for a relatively brief period of her incredibly full and long life. (Her obituary didn't even begin to sum up all of her many accomplishments--all of the remarkable trailblazing things she did and all of the lives she blessed as an educator and friend.) But I'm incredibly grateful to have been touched and influenced by her beautiful spirit. 

Theresa had the ability to recognize and appreciate the amazing gifts in every person she met. May we always be able to see that same goodness in others...and in ourselves. That, I believe, is the marvelous gift she left for all of us.

Paz y bien, Hermana.

*Photo credit: Steve Lukas