So many of you have been so thoughtful with your expressions of concern, sympathy and prayer upon the untimely death of my only sister, Mary Therese, who died suddenly at her home in Springfield, Illinois on New Year’s Eve morning. She was only 55. There were about 1,000 people present at her memorial service in Springfield. She was an advocate for everyone in need or in distress, and as I have said many times, absolutely heroic in her care for our parents in their last years.
I would like to share with you the reflection that I gave at her memorial service in early January, as a way of sharing her life with all of you. There is one detail that I inadvertently left out of this reflection. Mary Therese was a great dog lover and a “rescue person.” She helped me in the initial efforts to adopt my first rescue dog. I gave him the name “Griffin” at her behest, because “Griffin” was the name of the Catholic boys high school I attended in Springfield, and as such has immediate name recognition in Springfield, or by anyone from there!
Thank you all for your prayers, concern and support these past months. It means a great deal to my family and me.
Homily for Mary Therese Vann – January 6, 2017
As I begin these reflections for my sister, I can briefly refer to the following short quotes from the Old and New Testaments:
“The Valiant Woman whose works praise her at the city gates” (Proverbs);
“God’s dwelling with the human race as He wipes away our tears from our eyes, and who makes all things new” (Revelation);
“Those who pass away have their works accompany them” (Revelation);
“Hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts” (St. Paul to the Romans);
And in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Whatever you did to these least of mine, you did it to me.”
My relationship with Mary Therese goes directly back to the night that she was born, when, as had been part of the ritual of our lives when a new baby came along, we gathered at our grandparents’ home at 1520 Whittier. My grandmother did not believe that the Vanns actually had a girl after all of the boys, and she said something like “Bill, don’t pull my leg. I don’t believe it.”
From that moment on, Mary Therese and I had a special relationship that became part of the fabric of our lives all of these years, going back to just before Christmas when I asked her advice about whether or not to try to attempt the flight to Asheville, given the weather and the bad cold that I had contracted just before Christmas. When she would be working on her cars, I would be working on player pianos. She would brag about using one of her nails to loosen a screw in an auto! This sort of “mechanical” aspect of our relationship continued through her auction days, when there would be a piano or rolls that I might be interested in. One of the things that she was most proud of was the fact that she found a piano bench to match my piano. She even saw that it was refinished professionally before it was sent down to Texas.
Her obituary is certainly well written, and I am grateful to say that I knew of her various endeavors and projects and care for so many because we spoke about virtually everything.
Reflecting on her life, I can certainly say proudly as one of her brothers that what she did was indeed for “The least of mine,” and that here in Springfield her works do indeed continue to praise her at the city gates, and surely she was valiant. As I said to the Springfield Business Journal, her words did indeed match her deeds and always with love – tough love perhaps at times – but love: which reflects the reality for me that love and justice indeed must go together.
She was always, always, supportive of my life in ministry: here in Springfield, then on to Texas and now to California. She has built up so many relationships with my co-workers that they have become part of her life. Reflecting her continued commitment to so many people, her work in her many charity auctions for Catholic Schools, pregnancy centers, St. Joseph Home and so many other places was going to be continued this month when she was going to come to St. Joachim School in Costa Mesa to have an auction for that school.
Her knowledge of, and support for my life and ministry has resulted in so many calls from Texas and California and even the Vatican: I just received yesterday a call from Cardinal Kevin Farrell, and a letter today from Cardinal Edwin O’Brien.
She always was supportive of, and interested in my life and ministry. Whatever difference in perspective there might have been simply didn’t enter into any conversation. She, like my parents, would often ask me to see someone to help them out in some pastoral challenge. On one occasion she helped me with a very difficult intervention, and another time in that same period, she came to my parish for Midnight Mass because she knew that I was very upset about a certain situation.
I could go on to other moments, but I have to especially reflect on what I call her heroic, truly heroic, care of Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad’s lives had impressed upon us that we live lives always for the good of others. In turn Mary Therese showed them, and helped us to see the reality of what Mom would say: that when “you cast out bread on the waters, it comes back to you.”
When I came back to Springfield in 2001, I was grateful because I knew that I could help Mom and Dad and help Mary Therese. I hadn’t counted on being sent far away -to places that have been good to me – and I, and all of us, came back as often as we could so that in some small way we could help shoulder the responsibility for Mom and Dad in their declining years. I didn’t ask to leave town – like the rest of us “boys,” but Mary Therese helped us to have the serenity that Mom and Dad were OK. (We did what we could from a distance). Life is not always on the waters and journey that we chart, but in some ways that we can’t understand or know, we know God or a “higher power,” we give ourselves to the life that we have been given as Mom and Dad taught us often and well.
Over the years a woman who has become a big influence in my life is a lady whose name is “Chiara Lubich,” who from the ashes of World War II in Trent, in Italy, founded a movement entitled “Focolare.” She became a personal advisor to many in the Church, and most especially Pope John Paul II, and he appointed her to many different meetings and encounters over the years. This “focolare” means hearth or warmth. The Focolare folks always, like Chiara, seek to bring warmth and light to all people they meet, to build up relationships with community based on their charism of unity. I meet with a group of Focolare Bishops monthly reflecting on the Word of God, and how we can bring unity and warmth to those we meet. For example, the word for today is “Don’t close your heart to love.” From our conversations, Mary Therese certainly did that with all whom she met. Chiara once told the Focolare to make sure that they always spoke with mercy, and not harshness, otherwise it would boomerang back upon them: “Our behavior toward our neighbor is like a boomerang, which when thrown, comes back to us. Do we show mercy, mercy will come back to us. When dealing with our neighbor, do we try to find the good in every situation?”
Mary Therese was a friend, confidant and most of all, my sister of whom I was always very proud, and she always tried to find the good in every complex human situation, as Chiara Lubich spoke above to the Focolarini…so that the warmth of human love could be found in each encounter.
Mary Therese, in all that she did and was for so many, above all was my sister, of whom I was always very proud and very grateful to be known as “MT’s brother.’’
There is a rather contemporary hymn entitled “We remember, we celebrate, we believe,” that is indeed what we do today. When Mary Therese passed away so suddenly, one of the reflections was about her smoking: Mom saying “I told you not to smoke so much!” However, another thoughtful image that was proposed was about Mom and Dad (and Mammo and Grandpa and all: Mary Margy and Uncle James whom we never knew), reaching out their hands to help her up and in. That is the essence of what we are about today.
Together we journey hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, journey from this world into the next, doing in whatever manner is done, the work of God for the betterment of lives around us, and however we know God or the higher power, praying and walking with each other into Eternity.
“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.”