Eulogy for Sister Leah Smith, Feb. 13, 1935-Feb. 21, 2013
VIGIL: 7 p.m., Feb. 26, 2013, at the Nazareth Motherhouse, Concordia
EULOGIST: Sister Anna Marie Broxterman
TO VIEW VIDEOS OF THE VIGIL AND MASS FOR SISTER LEAH, CLICK HERE. (This will take you to another page where you will see thumbnail versions of each video. Click and the “Play” arrow in the center of the one you wish to view; you can then enlarge to full screen, if you choose. Make sure your speakers are turned on to hear the sound.)
“Come, my beloved, my beautiful one, come!” Sister Leah Mae Smith responded to that invitation as she completed her journey to new life Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
Leah was the sixth of 10 children. She was born in Junction City, Kan., Feb.13, 1935, to Walter and Elnora Farmer-Smith and was baptized Leah Mae. Her three bothers and four of her sisters preceded her in death. She has two living sisters, Laura and Nona.
The weather prevented Laura from being physically present for Leah’s vigil and funeral Mass but she is with us through live broadcasting. Nona and her husband Gill Mendoza are here and with them are Nona’s two children, Paul and Karen and Karen’s daughter Lindsey. To each we extend our heartfelt sympathy with special recognition of Laura, Nona and Gill.
We, like you, will miss Leah’s presence though we give thanks that she is freed from the burden of her illness, which had taken from her so many normal functions of daily living. The strength and depth of her spirit, however, only grew stronger and endeared us to her and her loving manner. Who will ever forget her signature greeting of two thumbs up?
Leah, Laura and Nona all spent a number of years in their youth at St. Joseph’s Home, an orphanage at that time in Abilene, Kan. It was from there that Leah entered the community on Sept. 8, 1950. She was only 15 at the time. Her dad gave written permission for her to enter. His letter to her reads: “In regard to your request, I would say this, if you are going to be happy as a Sister of Saint Joseph, and if that is what you want, then I want it also and I give you my consent.” It was signed, “Your loving father.”
Entering the community with Leah were seven other women. Three of those band members are here tonight: Sisters Cecilia Green, Anne Martin Reinert and Rosalyn Juenemann. One band member preceded her in death, Sister Benedicta Moeder, and three came to know that God’s call was elsewhere. Leah entered the novitiate March 19,1951, and received the name Sister Hubertine. Later she would return to her baptismal name.
Because she was so young upon entrance, she could not make final vows with her band members on March 19, 1955, because she was not yet 21 (a canon law requirement at the time). So she made her final vows Feb. 14, 1956, the day after she turned 21. In her comments written for The Messenger in 2011 on the occasion of her 60th jubilee, she had this to say:
“…When it came time for my final vows, in 1956, the chaplain at the Motherhouse had promised to say a Requiem Mass for someone and he would not change his schedule just because I was making my profession. I may have been unhappy with his inflexibility – but then I realized that I would be the only Sister of St. Joseph to make her profession with a Requiem Mass, and I was proud of that fact. I made a pact with the poor souls in that Mass that I would pray for them daily if they saw to it that I would be able, God willing, to continue my entire lifetime with the Sisters of St. Joseph. So far, so good – and my life will end with a Mass said for me.”
Sister Leah taught in grade schools from 1953 to 1974. Her journey as a teacher led her to schools in Salina, Kan.; Chicago; Silver City, N.M.; Gladstone and Lake Linden, Mich.; and Grand Island, Neb.; her first year on mission was at Tipton, Kan., where she served as cook.
A letter in her file from a student back in the 1950s or early ‘60s was written to her in response to a letter she had sent him. He had told Sister Betty Suther that Sister Hubertine (Leah’s name at the time) was “unforgettable.” So Leah wrote to him, asking him what “unforgettable” meant.
His letter in response, written in 2004, gives a flavor of her relationships with the students and her teaching skills:
“… You are unforgettable to me because I believe now, as I did those many years ago, that you were one of the best teachers I ever had. … By the time I got to be an old man of the sixth grade, I had had a number of teachers, and I already knew a good teacher when I had one. And please take this as a compliment when I say your entire demeanor as a person and teacher at St. Joseph and St. Ann’s always made me feel as if you were my mom. You know you had a reputation as being pretty tough, and you were, no nonsense, most of the time but you could also laugh heartily, and your smile lit up the room! You always had time to help a student when he needed it, you cared. We were all pretty intimidated by you, but we also knew you cared about us and our education. You were great, that’s why I’ll never forget you…”
A number of community members who lived with Sister Leah during her teaching years spoke lovingly about their local community experience. One of the Sisters exclaimed, “What a humble and loving person full of energy and fun!” Others who knew her during those years have messages on Facebook speaking about her sense of humor. There is, however, a rumor that she was not fond of local community meetings and she made herself scarce at our annual congregational assemblies. Obviously her absence was our loss.
Following her years of teaching, Leah worked at the Motherhouse as a receptionist. Having served there for six years, she began her work in 1980 at St Joseph’s Hospital, which later became Cloud County Health Center. She worked as secretary and aide in the Physical Therapy Department. She retired from there in 2009.
Somewhere along the way, she also studied graphoanalysis and became skilled under the tutelage of MGA, International Graphoanalysis Society, in Chicago. There is no written evidence that Leah used that skill in professional analysis although she was called upon to share her wisdom in more casual settings.
Leah’s creative talents were well known through her preparation for and participation in the Motherhouse Annual Crafts Sale the Saturday after Thanksgiving. She along with Sisters Susan Stoeber, Jackie Kircher and Cecilia Green hosted that event for many years. Their crafts were exceptional, and folks came from miles around to do their Christmas shopping.
In 2010, Leah’s friends in community were the first to notice her faltering speech which was quickly diagnosed as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is an incurable and progressive disease of the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.
For Leah, the progressive disease led first to not being able to speak. Then she was unable to swallow, necessitating the insertion of a feeding tube. Ultimately she needed the care offered at Mount Joseph Senior Village. Initially she was able to get around in a motorized scooter, but then her loss of balance prevented that freedom. She retained the ability to write notes, though in the past month, that too had become more difficult. None of that means that she lost her indomitable spirit, which remained attractive until she moved into unconsciousness within 14 hours of her death.
It was her indomitable spirit that created a desire in me to write about her for the Concordia Blade-Empire as an “unsung hero,” this year’s focus for the Year of Peace columns. The column appeared in print Feb. 1, 2013. The rest of the eulogy draws upon that column.
As Leah traversed the halls at Mount Joseph on her scooter, she had a sign placed on it reading, “I cannot speak but I can wave Hi” And that she did; it became the means for establishing relationships not only with the staff but also with other patients. Eventually that sign was placed on her door and her wave turned into her signature “thumbs up” greeting.
So you see, Leah was not only creative in arts and crafts, she was creative in establishing relationships. That quality did not begin when she was at Mount Joseph, her department chair at the hospital, Marci Rogers, spoke of Leah’s smile and her ability to make others smile, which enhanced the hospitable and gracious demeanor with which the department served their clients. Leah’s relationships at the hospital were not limited to the physical therapy department; rather, other hospital personnel would recognize her presence through kind gestures that appeared anonymously on their desks. Sometimes they would find an unexpected casual note, an apropos cartoon, a piece of chocolate candy or some small creative art piece. There was never a signature, but everyone knew Leah had been there.
Upon visiting Leah in recent weeks, she always had background music playing. When asked about the origin of the music, she told me it had been created for her by Marci’s adult children, in recognition and gratitude for the “travel kits” they had received years ago as young children. Children of other personnel in that department also were recipients of such favors.
An anonymous note came to me from one of the employees in the Physical Therapy Department upon knowing of the forthcoming Blade-Empire column. It read:
“After her battle with ALS had led to her being hospitalized, I was amazed at her ability to smile so big and so beautifully… Seeing the hope in her smile made us feel like everything was going to be all right. Is this the testament of her faith in the Lord or just the product of heroic courage in the face of a deadly disease?”
“Heroic courage” is an apt description of Leah’s response to a debilitating disease. A particular quality of heroes is the ability to make a difference wherever they are; their personalities are magnetic and they often possess a distinctive creativity that attracts others. Leah possessed those characteristics. The miracle is that she gave permission for the article to be published. The timeliness of its publication reflects, for me, the loving providence of God who chose to have a faithful servant recognized.
I was privileged to be with Leah in the immediate hours prior to her death. The staff nurse on duty that morning was administering the routine tube feeding and commented that doing so was difficult without Leah’s help. She then spoke about Leah’s sign language experienced in earlier days during that procedure. Among the things shared was that if the person doing the feeding was tapped three times, it meant, “I love you.” At the time of Leah’s death, three members of the staff were with her. Their tears reflected that the love was mutual.
Leah has taught through unspoken words the depth of the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Thumbs up, Leah, you did it! You completed your journey to new life as a Sister of St. Joseph and you did us proud!
• • • • • •
Memorials for Sister Leah Smith may be sent to the Sisters of St. Joseph Health Care/ Retirement Fund or the Apostolic Works of the Sisters; P.O Box 279, Concordia KS 66901. Or you may make a donation in Sister Leah’s memory online, through a secure server with PayPal, by clicking on the DONATE button below.
4 thoughts on “Eulogy for Sister Leah Smith, Feb. 13, 1935-Feb. 21, 2013”
Thank you for your service to all Gladstonians while you were teaching at All Saints School in Gladstone, Michigan………You are remembered with love, respect and gratitude……We loved you!
God really gifted us with a gem! Thank you, Leah, for life shared so tenderly. Thanks for the many ways you shared a wonderful presence. I will miss you.
The eulogy was wonderful! Thanks, Anna, you captured Leah so well.
It was a treat getting to see the service on the computer this evening.
Thanks to all!
Sister Hubertine….I remember her well. She was so much fun….her laughter was contagious. She helped me by listening and giving me wonderful advice while I was in the order. She always had a sparkle in her eye….loved her sense of humor, her caring and loving listening and advice and her laughter which touched my soul! Thank you, dear Sister Hubertine/ Leah…..sending love, prayer and positive energies for your transition to your new life…..THANK YOU!
Leah didn’t let her illness define her, but greeted all who came to visit, with her smile and her thumbs up! “Thumbs up to you, Leah. You now have your reward for your faithfulness to God, community and your many friends.”