Eulogy for Sister Mare Coleman, Jan. 14, 1921-July 3, 2010

Sister Marie Coleman

VIGIL: July 5, 2010, at the Nazareth Motherhouse, Concordia

EULOGIST: Sister Bette Moslander

We come together tonight to honor the memory of Sister Marie Coleman, and to celebrate her birth into new and eternal life.  Marie died a little after 6 a.m. on July 3, 2010, here in Cloud County Health Center.

Marie was born, Jan. 14, 1921, in St. Marys, Kan., the daughter of Natalie Dagenais and Oscar Joseph Coleman, the seventh of eight children in the family. There were two other girls, Mary and Ruth, and five brothers, Leo, Claude, Eugene, Ernest and William. Her mother Natalie died two weeks after the birth of William, in the summer of 1922, leaving eight young children to the care of their father.

Oscar moved the family of eight to Abilene, Kan., where he was able to place all of the children in St. Joseph Home, an orphanage, owned and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. Living in nearby Abilene, he faithfully and frequently visited the children.  Marie would tell poignant and beautiful stories of her father’s visits and how he brought the children small treats when he visited.

One of the sisters, Sister Anastasia, was in charge of the 40 girls who lived at the orphanage. “I was only a year an a half old when my mother died,” said Marie, “So Sister Anastasia became my ‘mother’ for the first four years of my life. By the time I was 6 she was reassigned and for me it was a terrible loss. I felt abandoned for a second time, by my second mother. I am sure that loss marked my young life in ways I have only gradually, through life, come to fully understand. I began my education in the orphanage grade school and came to love Sister Sylvester, my first-grade teacher, who taught me to love reading and opened my young mind to a love for Bible stories. She also taught us to observe nature and to watch for the birds around the orphanage ground. I remember that she spanked me lightly once for talking too much. Those who know me will attest to the fact that it really didn’t work.”

Throughout her life Marie would often recall incidents of her life in the orphanage and told stories of the sisters she knew as a child and loved because of their kindnesses and tender care. Recently Marie, with the help of Sarah Jenkins, published a small book “The Sisters Who Loved Me,” recounting her days while she was at St. Joseph’s Home and her relationship with the sisters who befriended and educated her.

Speaking of her first attraction to religious life, she recalled Sisters Dechantal and Eulalia, who begged from nearby merchants for food and clothing for the 40 girls and 40 boys at the orphanage. She wrote, “I just knew that I wanted to be like them when I would grow up.”

During the summer months, when classes were out, the Coleman children often spent time with their grandmother, Frances Coleman in St. Marys. There they met the Jesuits from St. Mary College, some of whom became lifelong friends of the family. When Marie was 13 years old it was time to leave the orphanage. She moved to St. Marys and lived with her grandmother so that she could take her eighth-grade classes in the Catholic school, where she was taught by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

The sisters had arranged for Marie to attend Marymount Academy in Salina for one year after she graduated from the eighth grade. She then transferred to the Abilene Public High School and she lived with her father and her sister, Ruth. She enjoyed the life of an ordinary high school girl, going to football games, acting in school stage productions, learning to sing and dance.

She graduated from Abilene High School in 1939 at the age of 18, and almost immediately wrote her letter to Mother Mary Rose Waller asking to enter the congregation, which she did on Sept. 15, 1939. She was received into the novitiate on March 19, 1940, and received the name Sister Mary Natalie, in honor of her mother. She made first vows one year later, on March 19, 1941 and final vows on Aug. 15, 1944. Marie celebrated her 70th anniversary this year. There are two remaining members of her band, Liebe Pellerin and Viatora Solbach.

Marie was assigned almost immediately after making first vows, to the small parish school in Collyer, Kan., where she taught primary grades. As was true of most sisters, at that time, she acquired her education piecemeal during summer sessions at Marymount, returning each September to the elementary school classroom.  This was her life from 1944 to 1969. During those years she taught in several parish schools in the Salina Diocese, and for a short time in Silver City, N.M., and in Aurora, Ill. In July 1944, her beloved father died, bringing to a close his faithful dedication to his family whom he had raised so well without his wife, their mother. “It was the saddest day of my life,” Marie said.

Marie began teaching in secondary and junior high schools in 1969, having completed her A.B. degree at Marymount in 1955. She acquired a Master’s Degree from Kansas University where she specialized in Secondary Learning Disabilities and was certified as a Reading Specialist. 1971 found Marie in Kansas City teaching learning- disabled junior and senior high School students in the Missouri Public School System.

In 1981, Marie began a sabbatical of nine months, at Mount St. Joseph’s College, in Cincinnati where she re-trained as a Prison/Jail Chaplain and Counselor. Upon completion of her sabbatical she moved to Washington, D.C. where she continued her education in Prison Chaplaincy in an Archdiocesan program at Trinity College. During this period she did field work with the Washington, D.C., police certifying as a Prison Chaplain in 1984.  During this same period Marie was participating in a two-year Spiritual Formation Program under Gerald May and Tilden Edwards, co-founders of Shalem Programs. She deepened her own desire for God and developed a deep foundation for contemplative prayer actively lived out on the streets of Washington caring for “her prisoners.”

She was hired full time by the Bureau of Rehabilitation of the District of Columbia as Counselor, Court Advocate and Custody of Jail and Prison Releasees. This work was done through the Superior and Federal Court System. Marie joined the professional organizations for jail and prison ministers and continued to visit the jails and prisons regardless of where she lived. In the course of her active years working with the prisoners and the releasees, in 1987 she took a one-year course in clowning and became a Certified Clown, taking the name “Delight.”

In 1993 Marie qualified for and received a Social Worker Associate Degree. Marie’s insatiable appetite for more and more learning experiences took her into many fields.  In addition to her commitment to prison populations, Marie had an intense interest in any major social justice issue that was current at the time. She wrote and called numerous offices of governors, legislators, politicians and clergy voicing her opposition to or support of given courses of action they were embarked on. She stayed the course of resistance to injustice wherever she might find it. And one thing I remember about Marie’s commitment to peace and justice is that she was always well informed about the position she would take.

Her health began to decline in the early 1990s following three abdominal surgeries for peritonitis and diverticulitis. After a heart attack and open heart surgery in 1999 and breast cancer in 2002, she would return to the fray undaunted, taking up her work either as a paid minister or a volunteer. Not one to give up, she moved first to Grand Island where she continued to regain her strength. In 1996, finding she needed an elevator. she moved to Medaille Center in Salina. There she took on volunteer work as chaplain at Saline County Jail and as a jail visitor and legislative aide at Catholic Charities. She also regularly volunteered at the Diocesan Office to review and respond to issues relating to federal legislation of significance to the Catholic social justice agenda.

The steadily declining state of her health forced her, reluctantly, to reduce her hours of work but she refused to give up her ministry. Her love and respect for the women and men in the jail was genuine but not ingenuous. She knew well that most of them found themselves where they were through their own failure and crime and many would return to the prison system once they were released or paroled. When the Medaille Convent in Salina closed Marie insisted on remaining in Salina where she could continue at some level her lifelong mission of active and inclusive love for the neglected and marginated. Meanwhile her own health was steadily deteriorating.

Life itself has a way of leading us to the self-emptying that our Maxims call for and to which we find ourselves so strongly resistant. In 2007 Marie voluntarily moved to the Motherhouse where she immediately began exploring Concordia for needs she might be able to attend to, but mostly she was gradually letting go of her own need to be actively engaged in ministry.  Most recently after breaking her arm in a bad fall she moved to Mount Joseph Senior Village in order to receive daily physical therapy. She was making some progress and was determined to return to the Motherhouse and to attend an up-coming reunion of orphans and their families in Chapman, come October.  It was not to be!  Another fall resulted in a severe fracture in her other arm and a bleed in the brain that resulted in her death.

So we come to pay our respects and to share our memories of this valiant woman. A Maxim that reminds me of Marie is Number 7: “In the manifestation of zeal characteristic of your very humble vocation, imitate the fervor of the most zealous and embrace in desire the salvation and perfection of the whole world in a spirit replete with a true humility and a generous courage. This will bring you to wish to do everything for the advancement of the glory of God and the salvation of the dear neighbor.”

And so Marie, we gather here to remember your life, to bless you on your way to that kingdom where justice reigns and where we know you will be at peace forever.

4 thoughts on “Eulogy for Sister Mare Coleman, Jan. 14, 1921-July 3, 2010

  • September 1, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Thank you for this lovely and thorough eulogy. I attended school at the St. Joseph Orphanage in Abilene Kansas around 1945 thru 1948, so I did not know Mary. I lived with my grandparents, Henry & Alma Bombardier and an uncle and aunt, Abner & Anna Bombardier, later I moved to Concordia.
    Thanks for the memories of the names and places. Ila Marie Smith/Potter, Olympia, WA.

  • July 10, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I met Sr. Mary when I was in Concordia for a three week sabbatical at Manna House…she and I spent a lot of time in the gazebo…she at one end and I at another. We were both careful not to intrude on each other’s
    space or reflection. She had difficulty walking but that didn’t stop her from
    offering assistance or her lovely smile. She made quite an impression on me and I thank you for her beautiful eulogy.

  • July 8, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I am so glad that I was able to meet Sister Marie last summer. She was a very interesting lady.

  • July 6, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Wow, what an amazing post is that….its really intresting, thanks for shaire with us.

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