In more ways than one, Sister Mary Jean was somewhat of an enigma. Though small in stature and unimposing in manner, she was mighty in deeds. Though she lived all her religious life in the city of Kinston, she was trusted with the care of her Sisters in centres all across Canada. While burdened with the numerous heavy responsibilities of the office of Superior General, she yet found time to begin each day with a Holy Hour in the chapel. When the Community took up for its daily prayer the Divine Office, she said the new prayer, but continued also with the older prayers from the Manual. These and other spiritual practices, she continued until the day of her death. It seems certain that the source of the strength she had and of the insights which led others to trust her was prayer.
Born Jessie Hazel Mary Walker on May 18, 1900, in Quebec City, Sister Mary Jean was the youngest daughter of John James Walker and Mary Ellen Webster. She was baptized, and later confirmed in St. Patrick’s Church in that city. Her father was a plumbing contractor. Though he was of Scottish descent, he and his wife lived all their lives in Quebec City. They had eight children – four girls and four boys. After the death of Jessie in 1985, David Charles, the youngest boy was the only member of the immediate family still living.
David remembers his “half-pint” sister as the fun-loving one. She enjoyed tobogganing and skating and always brought great joy to the house when she was home for holidays. It was Margaret, an older sister, who people thought would enter, he said; Jessie was “too lively”.
Jessie received her elementary education from the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Good Shepherd Academy. At the time of her entrance she had completed her Grade 12, taken a commercial course and been working for a while. She was twenty-four, which was about the average age for her class. Two of her classmates were also from Quebec City and had entered just a month before her – Sister Mar Lidwina (O’Dowd) and Sister Mary Catherine (Dooley). All three of the Quebecers had been “sent by the Redemptorists.” Jessie’s letter of recommendation is signed by Father Gerald Koster, CSsR, and came from St. Patrick’s Church, Toronto. In his letter Father proclaims to the Community, “I think God is blessing you in bringing to your doors one who gives great promise of being a true child of God – respectful, submissive, cheerful and pious.” Since Jessie was bilingual, could take shorthand in French and English and type, was business-like and mature, some predicted already that she would become Superior General some day. She was not teased about her short stature and seemed to make little account of it herself.
In the address which is an appendix to this necrology, Sister Mary Jean gives us some of her own memories of her first days in the Community. We are indebted to Sister Margo Shafer who, in 1978 as a novitiate project, prepared and taped the interview from which this transcript is taken. The tape with Sister Mary Jean’s own voice is a real treasure!
As a Postulant and young Professed Sister, Sister Mary Jean worked in the House of Providence printing shop with Sister Mary Gabriel (Cunningham). When Sister Mary Gabriel was Superior of the House of Providence and also during the term of Sister Mary Adalbert, she served as secretary and treasurer. For periods, too, she helped in caring for the elderly residents and this work with the sick-poor remained always very dear to her heart. From the sisters with whom she worked she learned to love the residents in the manner characteristic of the foundation house.
By 1939 Sister Mary Jean’s fine qualities had been recognized by the Sisters with whom she lived to the degree that she was elected as one of their delegates to the Chapter. This election was to be repeated in 1942, 1945 and 1948. Meanwhile, in 1943 she became Superior. When this assignment was renewed in 1946, she wrote to Mother Mary Anselm (Egan):
“I should feel honoured that you have entrusted me with this portion of your flock, but such in not the case. I realize my unworthiness and inability to govern and would be very happy had I been relieved of the burden. However, since God has ordained otherwise, I shall try to cooperate with His grace and shall leave the results entirely in His hands, that His work my be successful, if such be His Holy Will.”
Having water her “pouring over the books and juggling the figures around” to keep “the Providence” going through the depression and the years of World War II, the Council had no hesitation in leaving it to her charge a while longer.
In fact, Sister’s chances of being relieved as shepherd of the flock, were fading fast. By 1948, she was well enough known across the Community to be elected Fourth Councillor. With this office went the title of “Mother”. An appointment in 1949 as Superior of the Heathfield Orphanage brought her closer to the Motherhouse and her work in the General Administration.
As she prepared to leave the House of Providence the seventy-two Sisters then resident there presented her with a hand-painted farewell scroll on which are the following words:
“When Christian hearts are called upon to part with loved ones, the spirit of religion gives that courage and dignity which marks such events in Communities, and to-night, dear Mother Jean, we have met to bid you farewell.
Your going is a keen sorrow to each of your Sisters at the House of Providence. Your tender and gracious care of us, has been a beautiful experience in the virtues which have characterized your term of office- humility, devotion, and an unusual charm of manner.
May we offer you our earnest congratulations upon your appointment to St. Mary’s Orphanage. We know you will bring to your new duties a largeness of virtue which will bring the blessing of God on the foundation.
We think you will miss us here; the active Sisters who have laboured with you, the dear sick and Aged sisters awaiting their summons to Eternity, and the infirm Old Folks and Residents, who have known your maternal care and who give to our loved House of Providence, a peculiar atmosphere, as though the Charity of Christ has suffered and died again in the persons of His Poor. So think of us all, dear Mother, and pray for us, that we may all meet in the timeless Eternity of Heaven, where partings are unknown.
Kindly accept this token of our loving gratitude for all you have done for each and every one of us, and be assured you will always live in our thoughts and prayers.”
The tribute was composed by Sister Mary Hildegarde (Rushman) and decorated by Sister Mary Magdelena Power.
On the death of Mother Mary Victoria (Donegan) in 1950, Mother Mary Jean was chosen as Superior General Twice she was re-elected to this highest office, so that she did not lay down that heavy responsibility until fifteen years had passed. Some of the notable events during those fifteen years were these:
1952 – Federal Incorporation of the Congregation
1952 – Corporate title changed to “Sisters of providence of St. Vincent de Paul”
1953 – Congregation became a Pontifical Institute
1954 – Marian Infirmary opened
1955 – Marillac Villa purchased
1961 – Centenary celebrated
It was a period of expansion in Eastern and Western Canada, although some small teaching missions in Ontario had to be given up. Mother Mary Jean strongly encouraged the Sisters to seek out new members. One year she set a target of “one per mission” and called for a “Community attack on St. Vincent” through prayers for vocations. Not every year in those times saw an increase in membership, but the Community did grow slowly from 361 Sisters to its peak of 382. The current “vocation crisis” developed after she had left office. Her comments about it in the Appendix are most interesting.
In an earlier day, in her strong hand, Mother Mary Jean had written on a holy card:
Please God, give my sympathy and sense
And keep my courage high.
Please god, give me calm and confidence
And please – a twinkle in my eye.
This interesting mix of firmness and gentleness is evident in her correspondence as Superior General. Her first letter to the whole Community in 1950 lists fourteen points of rule and discipline to be attended to. To these she added two more in her September letter a year later. Yet, full of good humour, she wrote to the Superior of the mission at King her approval of numerous repairs to “the house that Jack so badly built”. Aware of her Sisters’ human need for contact, she wrote long and informative circular letter. As you know, in those days there was no “Courier” so her letters were very welcome.
Sabbaticals were not common in 1965; so, although she had been Superior General for the unusually long period of fifteen years, Mother Mary Jean did not receive “time off”. She went immediately back to being Superior of the largest mission of the Institute – the House of Providence. Only at the end of her second term in 1971 did she return to “the rank and file”. For twenty-eight years in all she had been carrying major responsibilities.
However, Sister Mary Jean did not leave Providence Manor, as it was now called, once she completed her work as Superior. She served in the Admitting Office all the rest of her life. With energy she had left from this occupation, she visited the elderly residents of the house every Sunday, acted as Directress of the Legion of Mary, was a volunteer with Birthright, wrote the Annals and typed many letters in response to Social Justice issues. Her solid spirituality was appreciated by the Legionnaires and by the families of the elderly. One letter, all the way from England, thanks her sincerely for her presence at the bedside of a dying relative:
“I am touched and grateful for your card and so is the whole family. It has helped us all so much to know that you had been with (Aunt Phylis) so near the end and that it was not a struggle, but a peaceful passing. I am greatly consoled by your prayers for her and for me and knowing what a wonderful spirit pervades Providence, I can think of no better place to die.”
Mother Mary Jean was, without doubt, a great public relations person!
In 1977, the Chapter discontinued the use of the title “Mother” for the highest officers in the Community. Former superiors General were given the option of retaining the title or returning to the use of “Sister”. All chose to resume the former designation. It was hard for those who knew them to drop these terms which bore so much affection as well as recognition. Even today, the title “Mother” is occasionally heard for those who once vore it so honourably.
Sister Mary Jean was actually called “Ma Jean”, by those who knew her best, the aged residents and the faithful staff. She would have liked to spend her last days among these friends, but the Lord willed otherwise. On October 19, 1985, she suffered a badly broken ankle after a fall down stairs. She was brought to the Marian Infirmary at Heathfield to recuperate.
Although Sister had had major surgery in 1948, and surgery in 1948, and surgery for cancer of the kidney in 1971, she had kept up well over the years of advancing age. She endured the typical aches and pains of arthritis without much fuss. So her sudden death on the morning of November 29, 1985, was completely unexpected. She had been hoping to have her cast off in a few days and planned to return to Providence Manor.
Mrs. Mary Goodall of the infirmary staff had been speaking with Sister, went to the door and turned back to find her dying. Fr. J. Rozon, Infirmary chaplain, came and anointed her and she went quickly to the God whom she had served so well.
For a few brief hours Sister Mary Jean returned to Providence Manor. Her wake was begun there to give the residents and staff a chance to say, “Good-bye”. In the prayer service Father Meldon McAuley, chaplain, expressed Sister Mary Jean’s farewell for her, describing the sadness her acquaintances would feel at her going and the joy they would have in knowing that she had entered the bliss of heaven.
Floral tributes from family, friends and business associates arrived during the wake at Heathfield. The funeral on December 2 was concelebrated by Archbishop J.L. Whilhelm and fourteen other members of the clergy. In his homily, Father T. Raby, vicar General, referred to Sister’s approachable manner and committed spirit. Her reply to requests for help around the diocese was, “We’ll do everything we can.” The recessional hymn, commonly known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, was a glorious tribute to this determined leader in the work of bringing God’s Kingdom to its fulfillment.