by Helen Coldrick, RDC
The lovely island of Guernsey lies sixty miles off the coast of England in the Gulf of St.Maio. It was there that Joan Adames, known to us as Mother Mary Ethelburge, was born; there that she spent her early childhood and began her education.
Joan’s island was a wonderful place to grow up in. With its mild climate, beautiful beaches and Cliffside walks, its masses of spring and summer flowers, Guernsey was almost idyllic. Then, in 1914, the opening guns of World War I brought to an end a century of peace in Europe. German U-boats prowled the waters of the English Channel, threatening the security and prosperity of Guernsey and the other Channel Islands. Some families moved to the British mainland, or sent their children there for greater safety. Others chose to go broad. On September 12, 1915, Adah Adames and her ten-year old daughter, Joan, embarked for America.
The transatlantic trip was fraught with peril. All her life, Mother could recall the journey in vivid detail –the sense of danger, the zigzagging course of the liner as the captain maneuvered to outwit and outdistance the menacing U-boats.
In our congregational archives, there is a map, slightly discolored by time, that records the ship’s location on each day of the crossing, from September 12 to 21. Attached to the map is a photograph of the ship’s captain; and next to him, apparently standing on a chair so she could reach his shoulder is Joan, her blonde mane tossed by the wind. The map is signed “To my little shipmate, with all good wishes, from Claret, Commanding.” With the advantage of hindsight, we can easily surmise that Joan had enchanted the captain, and probably all whom she met on board; and that her inborn gift for friendship had already begun to flower.
Years would pass before Joan’s return to Guernsey. But a new life began with her enrollment at Good Counsel. Here, enduring friendships would be formed and her religious vocation would take deep root. Between her entrance into the community of the Divine Compassion in l922 and her first election as Superior General in 1957, she taught in elementary and high school, and served on the General Council and as First Councillor to Mother Mary Dolores, all the while growing in the affection and esteem of her Sisters. Re-elected in 1963 for a second six-year term, she faced the daunting task of guiding the Congregation through the early stages of the evolutionary process set in motion by the Second Vatican Council. For her, this was a time of testing. But her tenure was also a time of accomplishment. An extensive building program was successfully completed; and in the spirit of the nationwide Sister Formation Movement, she advanced the spiritual and intellectual formation of our Sisters.
In 1969, freed from the burdens of leadership, she resumed her close association with the Guild of Our Lady of Good Counsel, becoming its moderator in 1981. For the next twenty years, she would be the heart and hands of the Guild, working side by side with a corps of talented and dedicated women, motivated, I am sure, as much by their love of Mother E as by their desire to support the mission of our Congregation.
Mother treasured each Guild member, took a deep personal interest in their lives, was present to their joys and sorrows, visited and corresponded with them long after illness or a move had separated them from Guild activities.
If the Guild was the center of her ministerial life, her caring and compassion reached out to countless others – members and former members of our Congregation and their families, former students, her beloved cousins in England and Canada, our employees, the many tradespeople with whom she dealt, doctors, government officials, architects and builders. Out of her deep reverence for the Catholic priesthood, she extended special hospitality to the priests who gave our retreats, said our daily liturgies and ministered to our sacramental life.
Her extraordinary capacity for making and keeping friends found expression, above all, in her renowned hospitality and in doing things for the pleasure of others – whether planning a meal, setting a beautiful table, or remembering your special day. She was a master planner. Nothing was left to the last minute or to chance. If there was a jubilee celebration, a formal school function, a guest room to be prepared, she liked to know well in advance so that there was time for everything to be done perfectly for the comfort and enjoyment of our guests. Crowning all these activities her participation in the myriad preparations and logistics for the Guild’s annual spring luncheon – a formidable task that would have wilted many of us.
For all her activities, she was blessed with amazing stamina. Into her early 90’s, she could outlast the youngest members of any jubilee clean-up crew, and would be seen at 11 p.m. in the Chapel, after the last cup and saucer had been stored away, praying her night office.
Her ability to share laughter and good times was another quality of her friendship. Often Mother did not get our jokes; and we blamed this, in a less politically correct age, on her English-ness.
But she was a good sport and had a great sense of fun…. Although one of her proudest moments was the occasion of becoming an American citizen, she maintained a strong attachment to her native country. And to the Queen. And on July 4th each year, with a wink and a smile, she would note that this was the day England had given the colonies their independence! Later we might concede that England had given a long line of saints to the Church, including her remarkable patroness, Queen Ethelburga; and, oh yes, there was the Magna Carta…On St. Patrick’s Day, she pinned on her large “Honorary Irishwoman” button, chose exactly the right shade of green for the party napkins, and joined in the singing of Irish songs, notwithstanding that many of them were musical variations on the theme of “perfidious Albion!”
Mother’s sense of fun came out in an especially memorable way some years ago. Some Sisters had planned a little Halloween party and invited us to come in costume. A few brave souls took up the challenge and decked themselves out in various guises and disguises. Guess who stole the show! Mother E – in long gown, feather boa, wide brimmed hat, worn Lillian Russell style to great effect, an open fan held just below her eyes. She was every inch the saucy duchess.
Good Englishwoman that she was, she also appreciated the beneficent effect of a well-aged sherry. For this reason, her English Trifle and hard sauce were legendary. Forewarned was forearmed!
Mother’s sense of dignity and decorum kept us from seeing more of this side of her personality. This is something we will always have reason to regret.
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Mother’s life points directly to her legacy. There is first of all her wisdom. Wisdom springs from many sources – from experience, from intellectual insight. Hers was the wisdom of the heart. Gift of nature, gift of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom that finds expression in those classic qualities that are warp and woof of human community and society - Transcendent qualities of kindness, generosity, compassion, self-forgetfulness, hospitality that sees Christ even in the stranger’s guise, a love of beauty in all its manifestations and a desire to make things beautiful for others. Empathy. These are the graces she infused into her life’s work. This is the wisdom out of which she taught us.
She also bequeaths to us her quiet but powerful example of harmonizing prayer and work, the ideal to which our Founders called us. Important as people were to her, she cherished the prayer and solitude which alone make self-donation possible. Precious to her were the Eucharist, the Divine Office, her annual retreat, Holy Hours before the Blessed Sacrament, her spiritual reading. Much of this she had to sacrifice as her eyesight faltered; but by then she was preparing to be still in God’s presence.
And finally, there is the invitation, implicit in her life to deepen our understanding of friendship as a Gospel value. Jesus rushed to console his beloved friends, Mary and Martha; and for them, he performed his greatest miracle, prefiguring his own resurrection. He said to his Apostles, “I call you friends;” and on the eve of his death, he spoke of laying down one’s life for one’s friends. “There is,” he said, “no greater love.” Mother, I think, responded instinctively to this teaching: her own life shone with self-transcending friendship.
Suffusing her life and work was her great love for her Congregation. How she cherished the title, “Sister of the Divine Compassion,” and prayed and sacrificed for the good of the Congregation and for its future. Was it mere coincidence she died on the day that Sr. Nga Bui
professed her perpetual vows?
Encompassed in her love for her Congregation was her deep love for Good Counsel, made holy in her sight by the footsteps of our Founders…Good Counsel, Mother, also made holy by your life. We thank you for your unexampled legacy. We shall miss you terribly. Yet, even if we could, we would not hold you back from embarking on your new journey – this time, in Mother Mary Veronica’s striking metaphor, out into the “ocean of divine love.” As we acknowledge with love and esteem your honored place in our Congregation, and prepare to escort your body to its resting place in the Chapel of the Divine Compassion, we bless you with the prayer for ocean
voyagers: “Fair winds,” Mother, “and following seas!”
And once again, and for the last time this side of heaven, we raise to you the toast that always made you smile: God bless America! Long live the Queen! And forever may you flourish, Mother E!!