A Valiant Woman

Sister Mary Dominica Brennan, OP

Sister Mary Linda Tonellato preached at the Vigil Service for our Aunt Pat (aka “Sister Dominica”, “S’ter Minnie”, or simply “Sister”), who died on March 18, 2015.

Sister Mary Linda admitted to struggling with the scripture text she wanted to use as her basis—Proverbs 31:10. While the passage itself seemed apt, among the many interpretations of the text, she found it difficult to choose the one that seemed most fitting.

Was Sister Dominica “good”, or was she “worthy”? Those words felt too subjective and overused, making them devoid of meaning. “Strong”? Perhaps, but not physically, like Superman/Superwoman. “Capable” seemed less than the original writer intended. At first, Sister Mary Linda was drawn to “virtuous.” Then she saw a Scripture commentary that said “virtuous” as applied to a woman meant primarily a woman “chaste, celibate, maidenly, pure, and innocent.” When she consulted a thesaurus she found that there, too, the first 20% echoed the commentary. While Sister Dominica was chaste and celibate—she had taken vows to remain so—those were far from her greatest gifts. The adjective Sister Mary Linda finally settled on to describe our aunt was “valiant”.

Sister Mary Linda said she feared she might going into the minutiae of her word choice issues at too great a length. Then she recalled the vigorous debates she and our aunt would have over the exact meanings of words. This brought a knowing laugh from the many assembled mourners, both lay and religious.

Family memories

I like the idea of Sister arguing with someone. It’s easy to think only of how compassionate and loving a person is, once you lose her, and how wonderful her sense of humor. I didn’t think, at first, about how talented, intelligent, and spirited she also was. Among the memorabilia on display in the visitation room was a yellowed telegram. She received it in 1955 upon winning a scholarship to Fontbonne College. Underneath the telegram was a piece of note-paper bearing the short message: “Thank you for the offer but must decline. Sudden change of plans.”

The sudden change of plans referred to her realization she could no longer deny the strong vocation she felt to enter the Dominican order. Her decision worked out well, both for her and for the Springfield Dominicans. She served two terms as Prioress General of the order before going on to receive her degree in canon law and serving as vice-chancellor and then chancellor for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

As we drove to Sister’s visitation and funeral in Springfield, BK fiddled with the radio, trying to find something we could stand to listen to in an area where we knew nothing of the local offerings. He finally found a public radio station, which is usually safe—no risk of Rush Limbaugh.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto came on. It took me back decades, to an afternoon Sister came to visit her parents—our grandparents—while my parents, brother, sister, and I were also there. Since I was the oldest sibling, and had just started taking piano lessons, I was allowed to sit with the adults in the living room and listen to her play that piece. It was the first time I had any notion that someone I knew could make music that sounded “real”—like music you might hear coming from a record album or the radio.

Memories from her community

“Last Friday I was listening to StoryCorp on NPR. I heard a man tell his son that babies are born with their fists closed because they are holding all their gifts they have to give the world in their hands. As we sisters sat with Sr. Mary Dominica in her final hours, I was aware of the fact that her hands were wide open and relaxed. She had given her gifts to all of us lucky enough to be in her life…

She came into this world with so many gifts clutched in her little fists. She had blessed our congregation and her family and friends with her many gifts – a keen mind, a witty sense of humor, a compassionate gaze from those dark brown eyes. She who shared them so generously left the world last Wednesday afternoon with hands wide open, her journey complete, welcomed into God’s loving arms.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

—from the remarks of Sr. Beth Wrenn, OP

 “Sr. Dominica was an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person in whose presence I never felt inadequate by comparison because she had the remarkable gift of helping the common person to feel confident and competent.”

—Sr. Mary Judine, OP

Sister’s last wish, for those she loved

I wish you enough

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun all the more.

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.

I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye.

They say it takes a minute to find special persons, an hour to appreciate them, a day to love them, but an entire life to forget them.

So to you my Sisters, my dear family members and my friends, you will never be forgotten. I will speak to the Lord about you often. May the years ahead be filled with enduring faith, hope and peace.

I love you and I wish you enough!

—Sister Mary Dominica Brennan, OP


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