By Prioress Sister Sandra Brunenn, OSB
The hour has come for the name of our Sister Phyllis to be glorified!
As I consider Phyllis in light of this Gospel, I ponder the countless times and ways the grain of wheat of her life has fallen to the earth, been broken open, and borne fruit in the lives of others. Your presence here…and the many messages we have received is testimony to that fruitfulness.
How shall we remember Sr Phyllis….In a moment I will invite you to share a story or memory that holds a response to this question.
For me, 4 characteristics stand out:
First, Sr. Phyllis was an extraordinarily gifted woman.
These gifts were first nurtured in her family as she grew up in Peoria, the daughter of Mitchell and Vicky McMurray. She was third in a family of 3 girls and 3 boys. After attending St Patrick’s Grade School and AOL in Peoria, Phyllis entered the Benedictine Sisters in Nauvoo who she had come to know when her family moved to Holy Family parish in the late 50s.
Her multi-talented nature led to her diverse professional career: she taught in diocesan grade schools; (I was with her on her first mission in Atkinson) then filled several roles at SMA before becoming principal in 1971. She served as director of the school until it closed in 1997.
Then, after a year of study, she returned to Nauvoo to serve as community vocation director. Later, from 2004 to 2012, as we know, Sister served as prioress….and that is an incomplete list of the various roles of this multi-talented woman….
In each of these capacities Phyllis demonstrated another noteworthy characteristic: she was a woman of incredible determination, commitment , resiliency and will.
I understand one SMA board member once stated that she had the “tenacity of a bulldog.” And, if you were on her team, you were expected to share the same determination and commitment. No half-hearted people need apply!!
We saw this whole-heartedness and tenacity in every area of her life, and in a very unique way as she dealt with her illness these past 6 years. I believe she embraced every healing remedy that was presented to her. For example, when our friend Sister Catherine Viray from the Phillipines encouraged her to take herbs and bee pollen she readily embraced this treatment with hope. Phyllis wanted to live.
That brings me to a third characteristic of her life. Phyllis recognized life as a gift and she loved life with intensity.
We can all share stories of her love for family, for friends, for students, for faculty and staff, for her sisters! And at the core of all this love was her love for God and the spiritual journey.
All of these characteristics: woman of extraordinary gifts, great determination and commitment, intense love of life …. Are what combined to enable her to be what I name as her 4th memorable characteristic:
Phyllis was a passionate leader!
She served as principal at SMA, Nauvoo for 25 years. The closing of the school was a source of sadness and loss for her, but it did not take long before she was renewed and ready to again put her gifts of leadership at the service of her community.
Thus she served on the building committee that helped design and plan for this monastery where we live now. (Last week, in the hospital, she mentioned to me: “You know I am an engineer at heart.”)
Once here at St Marys in Rock Island, the community chose her to continue to exercise her leadership, this time by serving as our prioress.
In a thanksgiving prayer for Sister’s ministry at the end of her second term, Sister Susan wrote a prayer expressing our gratitude and summarizing some of the gifts we received through her leadership: She said “Sr Phyllis has shown us the way through her prayerfulness, love of community, stability of presence, strength, wise decision-making, gentle guidance,and determined perseverance through illness, laughter, tears, and joy.”
That my friends is a hard act to follow!
In countless times and ways Sr Phyllis surrendered her life so that it might bear fruit for others and she knew joy in this daily surrender.
Let us rejoice and be glad with her now that her hour of glory has arrived for we know,–as we were reminded in the Scripture reading tonight– that all of her good works with us and for us accompany her!
Sr. Phyllis and so many other sisters from SMA were instrumental in shaping my life. I am so blessed and grateful to have known her… my heart and prayers go out to her family and all the Benedictine Sisters. She should be remembered as a Saint for dedicating her life in caring for so many young women in their most vulnerable year.
Sincerely with love,
Cindy Mortimer Lawrence
I was a student at SMA from 1980-82. My memories of SMA are very vague and disjointed, I was very angry at everyone, troubled, and in the throws of addiction. I honestly did not appreciate her or others at SMA until much later in life.
Thank you, Sister Phyllis for having faith in me when I couldn’t.
Sr. Phyllis has had an amazing influence on my life. When I first met her and Sr. Marlene during my interview, she struck me as a person who was truly interested in me. During my first trying months at the academy I came to understand that she determined a goal she would like to see in each girl according to her talents, wants, and needs. She made us want to live up to her expectations. She would encourage one girl, hug another, and crack the whip when needed. I really came to appreciate her for believing in me. It has made me want to be a better person throughout the years.
I have had the opportunity to get to know her better in the years since I graduated. I have enjoyed laughing with her about the exploits of the many girls who attended SMA. She saw a lot of humor in what we all tried to get away with. She was proud of us. She prayed for us. She loved us all. Even when she had to ask students to leave or suspend a student, she still wanted each of us to succeed.
I met with her shortly after she had been diagnosed with cancer and she was very upbeat about it. When I asked what I could do for her, she said the sisters had been through this many times before and they had it down to an art form.
She gave unconditional respect, love and devotion to her family, her sisters, her SMA girls, and everyone she met. She truly inspired me. I will miss making new memories with her.