Thursday, December 04, 2008

'Beautiful Marie' leaves warm, lasting legacy

Hump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial Page

When the phone rang at 8:26 a.m. last Wednesday, it caught me by surprise. Who in the world would be calling me at home at this time of the day?

Thanks to caller ID, I saw that it was my uncle. "This can't be good," I thought. "He wouldn't be calling me so early unless someone died." There were a few relatives on "death watch", so to speak, so it could have been any of them. A few names came immediately to mind. Which one would it be?

I answered and it was indeed bad news. My great aunt Marie, a nun for nearly 80 years, had passed away during the night. She was 97. Her death was not unexpected. In fact, it was a welcome release, in my opinion, from her long life whose quality had long ago ceased for all intents and purposes. Since she'd broken a hip this summer, her health had declined at a fast pace. In recent weeks, she slept practically around the clock.

I made a few calls to let some cousins know. Again, no one was surprised, but it was still sad. Marie was such a dear person that it would be difficult to say goodbye to her, even if the end was welcomed by all, including Marie.

In fact, in her early 90s, she was at my cousin's house one Christmas Eve when she was heard saying, "Jesus forgot about me again this year," a reference to the fact that she was still alive. Evidently, she had not expected to live so long.

The wake and funeral were both held at the convent. Marie looked peaceful and resplendent in her simple wooden casket covered with a powder-blue patterned fabric. She wore a navy blue dress -- blue being her favourite colour. Rolled up tightly in her hand was the original copy of the handwritten final vow she had signed on Aug. 15, 1934. A photocopy of the vow was on the casket for mourners to read. Beside it was a list of her postings, from her first in 1931 as a cook at the convent in Petit-Rocher, to 2004, when illness forced her into retirement and a room in the convent's infirmary.

Because of her short stature, she was nicknamed "La P'tite Marie" (The Little Marie) by the sisters. With so many nuns being named Marie (her original religious name was Sister Marie-Virginie -- shortened simply to Marie when they were allowed to return to their birth names), I guess her nickname was a way to tell her apart from the others.

For most of her career, Marie worked in service to others, mostly as a cook, sometimes in the laundry. Her fudge was legendary, with ultra-sweet divinity fudge being her specialty. She had spent so many years in Petit-Rocher that the current mayor even sent a letter to be read at her wake. The letter said that her recipes are still known far and wide throughout the community and grace many a table on regular basis.

During a special prayer service where Marie was eulogized, a sister asked mourners if anyone had ever seen her in a bad mood in her nearly 80 years as a nun. No one had. Even in illness, she always smiled and never complained. No matter who entered her room, they were met with a wide smile and an "Allô cher!" (Hello dear!). And before they left, she would give a heartfelt "Merci!" (Thank you!).

She was always so sincerely happy to see you that she made you feel like a million bucks. She wouldn't just smile upon your arrival; she would laugh.

During the wake, we heard cute stories about how the priests would tease her by putting her cooking utensils on shelves too high for her to reach. Perhaps they were trying to see if they could actually make her angry -- which proved to be an impossible task.

With female relatives, she would ask what their husbands did for a living. And for some reason, she would often ask how much money they made, perhaps to give her some sense of economic context to the world, since all her needs were taken care of by the religious order to which she belonged.

Marie never learned to speak English. Her great friend, the late archbishop Donat Chiasson, used to call her "Beautiful Marie", partially in friendly teasing and partially for the fact that she was such a beautiful person. She radiated kindness, generosity and unselfish service to others. She took joy in her work and lived a long and happy life.

At her funeral in the convent's chapel last Friday, family members and her fellow sisters gathered to bid La P'tite Marie a final farewell into her well-deserved eternal rest -- 77 years after she first entered the convent and 74 years after taking her final vows.

As a pallbearer, I sat in the front row. At the end of the funeral, we carried Marie's casket out of the convent, down the steps and into the hearse. Along with the family, many of the nuns wept openly inside the back door as they watched us, knowing it would be the last time that any of us would see her.

My eyes filled with tears as I realized I would never hear her "Âllo cher!" or "Merci!" again. Nor would I see her face light up with glee as I entered her room, she being so happy to have visitors.

One of my strongest memories of Marie was at my grandfather's (her brother) funeral in June 1980. As she stood before his casket, she reached in and placed her hand over his. Initially, I was shocked because I didn't know this was even allowed.

Twenty-eight years later, I did the same to her as a sign of respect. Her hand was cold and stiff, but Beautiful Marie's memory was warm in my heart -- and will always remain that way.

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