I am standing on the sea shore. A ship spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon, and someone at my side says, “She is gone.”
Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. The loss of sight is in me, not in her; and just at the moment when someone says, “She is gone” there are others who are watching her coming. Other voices take up the glad shout, “There she come,” and is dying.”
Sister M. Stella Maris kept several copies of this “Parable of Immortality” because its simple metaphor spoke volumes to her:
- her father was sailor and she inherited from his love of the sea
- to honour him she took as her religious name, ‘Mary, Star of the Sea’, and her devotion to Our Lady as ‘Ocean Star’ was very genuine
- she had an intense belief in the dignity of human life and the incalculable worth of each individual person
- In the prime of life, she needed a way to peacefully face, understand and experience death.
Born in Darlington, County Durham, England, on January 2, 1929, Muriel was a companion for Shirley, born eighteen months previously. Her father, William Black, was then a first mate sailing with the British Merchant Service. By World War II he had risen to the rank of captain and served on a corvette. His wife, Francesca Marie MacNeil was a registered nurse. They had me quite by accident, you might say. While he was working coal ships along the coast of Nova Scotia, this pretty lady from North Sydney tripped as she was coming on board and he happened to be there to catch her.
At the time of Muriel’s birth the Black family lived in northern England. The damp, chill climate contributed to her having a serious bout with rheumatic fever at age five. This illness left her with a weakened heart. She also nearly died as a child of blood poisoning. In notes made much later in life, she traced to those life-threatening experiences her first awareness of God’s care for her. It was at an early age, too, that the sight of a “white winged Daughter of Charity” made her think of giving her life to the service of this caring God as a religious Sister.
Mr. Black moved his family to Montreal, Canada, when Muriel was about nine. Although St. Augustine’s Parochial Academy where the children continued their elementary education was an English speaking institute, they found themselves teased because of their accent. Muriel learned then what it meant to be an underdog and it seems she formed a lasting resolution to assist those in similar circumstances. A Sister friend gave an example of this trait from Sister M. Stella Maris’ days as a young religious. In the house where they lived there was an elderly Sister who would have been embarrassed by her difficulty in finding the correct page for the day’s meditation and spiritual reading to the community except that Sister M. Stella Maris unobtrusively prepared the book for her each day.
For part of her high school education Muriel attended Maryvale Abbey, Glen Nevis. All ‘Maryvalers’ will revel in these closing words from the valedictory she gave in 1945:
“Maryvale – valley of Mary – you have been and will continue to be the symbol of all that is good and pure and true. You have become for us more than a name – you are a spirit, the spirit of love of God, devotion to duty, and fidelity to high ideals. May we ever bear through life the banner of followers of Mary, of true daughters of Maryvale?”
Muriel returned to Montreal, to Marianopolis College, University of Montreal, for her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education Degrees. In all her scholastic efforts she achieved honours, for she was a quick and diligent student.
While at “The Glen” Muriel met for the first time the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul and it was to Sister M. Electa (Murphy) that she turned for advice when in 1949, her studies finished, she made up her mind to enter the convent. She had to delay her entry date for one year because her father, a non-Catholic, while willing for her to enter, wanted her to be twenty-one and to have a profession first. She took a job teaching Grade 6 at Notre Dame des Neiges, Montreal, for that intervening year. She thoroughly enjoyed her work and, when she left, the letter of recommendation she took with her described her as “having a pleasing personality, shill, integrity and unlimited devotion to her pupils and colleagues”.
Muriel entered the Sister of Providence on August 15, 1950. At the close of the Novitiate she obtained an Ontario teaching certificate from Toronto Normal School and was assigned to teach in Perth at the Grade 9-10 level.
In the years after Perth there were high school classes at St. Michael’s, Belleville, St. Patrick’s, Camrose, and Nicholson Catholic College, Belleville. In the last named school she was Head of the Biology and Mathematics Departments. Constantly educating herself as well as her students, she improved her teaching qualifications in mathematics, English, physics, chemistry and religion with courses from the University of Ottawa, University of Alberta, Queen’s University at Kingston, University of Windsor, Loyola, Montreal and overseas in England. She was active also in extracurricular functions with the students such as a vocation club and the preparation food baskets for the poor. When her career as a teacher ended in 1978, she had taught twenty-seven years in all. She had become a Canadian citizen on April 19, 1972.
Although Sister M. Stella Maris enjoyed teaching, the time came when she “felt the need of a change” and she was given a year at St. Paul University, Ottawa, to follow “what some of her friends considered an incomprehensible interest in canon law”. By Christmas she had decided to remain in that field and received permission to complete the necessary studies to take a position with a matrimonial tribunal. Between September, 1978, and May, 1980, Sister completed a Bachelor of Arts in Canon Law, cum laude, from St. Paul’s, a Master of Arts in Religious Studies, with distinction, from Providence College, Rhode Island, and a Masters in Canon Law from the University of Ottawa with a Licentiate in Canon Law, J.C.L., from St. Paul’s. Part of her in-service training was in the Montreal Marriage Tribunal, where her work as an English speaking confrere was much valued.
In July, 1980, she was appointed auditor/notary of the Toronto Regional Matrimonial Tribunal by Cardinal G.E. Carter. In September she became founding director of the Kingston Branch of the Toronto Tribunal. In 1983-1984 she was Promoter of Justice for the Archdiocese of Kingston. In the latter part of 1984 she worked part-time for the Matrimonial Tribunal in Edmonton.
In all her life Sister did not spare herself, but gave all she had as a student, teacher, lawyer, sister and friend. She felt obligated to use her talents and the education she had been given and she was happy to do so. Her record is a remarkable one considering that she did not have robust health. As well as the heart problem form childhood, she suffered from bad headaches and from February, 1982, she had to battle with advancing cancer. Clearly she was a person with unlimited devotion to the truth, to the poor and to God.
A book of quotations which Sister M. Stella Maris kept gives evidence of her pursuit of the deepest truths. She made a particular study of religious life, the way of holiness and the spirit of our own Institute. While wary of the trap of “political messianism” into which some members of religious orders have fallen lately, she did not hesitate to call us to be in solidarity with the poor in our own localities. In the position paper which is an Appendix to this necrology, Sister expresses her opinion strongly. Her dream was to take up residence in a house which would be open to everyone in need, stretching to assist as many as possible. For her:
“The goods of the Institute are the patrimony of the poor. This has always been part of our understanding, and as the money base of the Community was built on alms begged for the poor, what we have has come to us in trust for them. Accordingly justice itself demands that we take only what we need.”
Sister practiced what she preached. We have seen that she encouraged her students not to forget the less fortunate. While she was stationed in Edmonton in the last few months that she was well enough to work, she privately tutored a needy young man and secured monetary help for him, prudently arranging that the fund be dispensed through the local priest. Monsignor P.S. Kinlin, Judicial Vicar, Toronto Tribunal, felt it was her desire to be helpful right here at home that brought her into marriage tribunal work. He says:
“Sister was one of those courageous souls who ventured into the troubled field of marriage annulments at a time when there was not much knowledge or interest in these particular suffering people. I know too well that her time of working was difficult time in this particular phase of the Apostolate…She put much feeling and prayer into her Apostolate. She was able to help many persons and was able to open the door for many of them to get back into the life stream of the Grace of God in newly established family life.”
Even for the dying, Sister M. Stella Maris championed “A Bill of Rights” and did so by holding to these rights for herself. All who know her were struck by her gentle dignity, her self-control, her insistence on being informed about medications and on making her own decisions about treatment.
Over the years Sister kept up correspondence with many former students, teachers, classmates, clients form the Marriage Tribunals, prisoners she had visited, clergy and nurses who had cared for her. From these letters it is obvious that she helped with many problems. She was a good listener and knew practical steps towards solutions. If she had cause to criticize, she would be honest, but soften it by putting some good angle on the behaviour.
In view of all the education, shills, personable qualities and spiritual gifts which Sister M. Stella Maris had, it seemed particularly tragic that she should die comparatively young. She did not argue over that reality, but pondered on it, as we must, too.
Her final combat with cancer lasted more than three years – February, 1982, to August, 1985. Toward the end it was particularly difficult. Nevertheless, she did her best to see that her family’s needs would be met, bore patiently an accidental injury to her right hand which rendered it almost useless, and always gave her ”beautiful, spontaneous smile” and a thank you to every visitor and care giver.
Sister’s father had died in 1972. Her mother was ill herself in Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto. But her sister, Shirley, was able to come to Heathfield and spend two weeks with her. In fact, she had just returned to her Toronto home when Sister M. Stella Maris died at 1:18 p.m. on August 28. In their sisterly affection they had agreed to spare one another that traumatic moment. Mrs. Joan LeBlanc, nurse in charge of the Infirmary, was with Sister and also Sisters M. Teresa Cole, Monica Laton, M. Annette (Kennedy) and Kathleen Morrell, who among others, had been keeping watch night and day.
The funeral Mass was concelebrated by Archbishop F.J. Spence, Archbishop J.L. Wilhelm, and sixteen priests, among them Fr. F. Morrissey, Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law of St. Paul University, Ottawa. In his homily Fr. Brian Price, Sister’s spiritual director, referred to her great compassion. “She tended,” he said, “to take upon herself the burdens of those she came in contact with…and succeeded in significantly touching the lives of many.” Mary, Mother of Sorrows, was Sister’s model for compassion. In fact, she advocated that this title of Our Lady be changed to “Our Compassionate Mother” as it was this aspect that this aspect of Mary’s sorrowing that gave Mother Gamelin the strength she needed. One correspondent of Sister’s wrote, when she found out that Sister had been too ill to reply to a letter, “I never thought for a moment that you had deserted me. That’s not your style.”
As well as the writings of Sister M. Stella Maris already referred to, she has left us others relating to our Community’s mission and life style. Through these, and our memories of her, she is still with us. In fact, perhaps, like the sailing ship in the parable, we shall experience her coming onto the horizons of our minds as an inspiring visitor bringing insight to our times. In any case, she would want us to go forward bravely in keeping with these lines she treasured as a guide for herself:
“Though my soul may set in darkness
It will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.”