“How can I repay the Lord
For all the good done for me?”
These lines we have just prayed from Psalm 116 reflect I believe the sentiments of the young Pauline Reavy when in 1939 she entered the community of Benedictine Sisters in Nauvoo, Ill.
When she was just 7 years old, Pauline’s parents Frank and Anna died just days apart during a flu epidemic. Pauline was lovingly raised by her older sister, Benita. Her family ties, most especially with her sisters Benita, Lib and Ginny, and their children Anne and Sarah, have been a gift she has treasured throughout her life. Pauline became a boarder at St. Mary’s Nauvoo for her last years of grade school as well as all of high school.
Pauline was grateful for the loving environment which nurtured her as a young woman and this gratitude prompted her to herself join the Sisters and in time to “pay her vows to the Lord in the presence of all the people”. In fact, it was on August 21, 1944, that Sister Benita made her final profession of vows….that is exactly 69 years ago yesterday!
Sister Benita began her ministry career as a grade-school teacher in 1942, the year I was born. Through her 42 years of teaching she served in Nauvoo, LaSalle, Moline, Atkinson, Bradford, Ivesdale, Monmouth and Peoria, as well as in Munster, Indiana and Chicago.
Several years ago Sister Benita received a letter from one of her former students. The letter gives us an image of Sister Benita the teacher. This woman, Siobhan Cafferty, writes, “I have so often thought of you in the past 25 years. You were an amazing teacher and a wonderful role model. … I remember your laugh and your sense of humor, but most fondly I remember your sense of adventure. I often laugh when recalling the long bike rides and ice cream cones we enjoyed and shared. I have not met many 4th grade teachers who would meet their class after school for long bike rides. You were so dear to us all. I am sure that my feelings were shared and are remembered by the thousands of children you taught and influenced.” Several of you have spoken of how diligent Sister was as a classroom teacher; I remember one summer in Nauvoo when I was asked to help her learn the ‘new math’ that she was expected to teach the next school year. She was very anxious to do a good job.
In her file in the Prioress’ office I have come across an essay that Sister wrote in 1985. It helps me see what kind of teacher she was. She describes how an accidental event became the start of an enduring project. She writes, “In the fall of 1970 when I was stationed in Chicago at St. Columba I always would have my class bring insects and larva to school for Science class. It so happened that year it was cooler and it was so cold that I placed the children’s jars of insects and larva in the steel cabinet. One dark morning before school began I went back to the steel cabinet and I placed all the jars on the window ledge. One jar with the black and orange chrysalis I had decided that I would throw away after school as I didn’t have time before school began that day. During Religion class one child spotted the jar I had decided to throw away. To my amazement a monarch butterfly began to emerge from the chrysalis. As I had a student teacher that year I gave it to him for the Religion class he was having at that moment. It was one of the most beautiful things of nature to behold.” Sister then proceeds to tell that she learned how to engage her students in nurturing the growth of their individual butterflys every stage of the way. She clearly knew how to involve her students in the learning process and make it exciting for them.
After her years of teaching, Sister moved into a new career which she enjoyed for almost 10 more years. She participated in the Diocesan Lay Ministry Leadership Training Program and became involved in Pastoral Care ministry at St. Patrick’s, LaSalle, and then in Monmouth. Here, as in teaching, her focus on the value of each person and attention to detail were special gifts she offered.
In 1993 Sister Benita came to Nauvoo to retire. I was in Nauvoo, too, at the time and I remember regular chats with her while she was on duty in the foyer and I was signing in and out. She was so grateful to have more time for reflection, and was eager to tell me about what she was reading. I remember she especially loved Joyce Rupp’s book “May I Have This Dance?”
Through all of these years, Sister Benita was “paying her vows to the Lord in the presence of all the people, in the courts of the house of God…”
We know that Sister’s last years have been marked by diminishment as slowly she has let go of eyesight, mobility, independence and hearing. We are grateful for her continued gracious presence with us and recognize that she has continued to be a blessing to us. I imagine she has held in her heart the psalmist’s words “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted’…O God, I am your servant”.
At the end of her butterfly essay Sister Benita shares the lessons she was able to teach using the butterfly and she ends “I also explained that it’s like us too when we die and arise to new life beautiful like the monarch butterfly.” We can rejoice that she now has risen to this new life.
I believe she prays now these lines of Psalm 116. Let us pray them with her:
“Return, my soul, to your rest;
For God has been good to me.
For my soul has been freed from death,
My eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before you God
In the land of the living.”