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monica-breenSister Monica Breen

1929 - 2016

Born: 24th January 1929

Entered Religious Life: 14th October 1957

Died: 9th December 2016

 

The following is an extended version of the eulogy given at Sr Monica's funeral
by Sr Rita Dawson RSC

Provincial of the English/Scottish Province

I should like to acknowledge those in attendance here today from Sr Monica’s family – her brother Alex and his wife Susan, also her sister Kathleen home from Canada with her husband James, and James’ sister, Eve.

On behalf of the family, the Congregation and the Clydebank Community, I should like to thank Canon Gerard Tartaglia for celebrating Mass today, also Father Aidan Martin and Father Joe McAuley and to Father Frank Wilson for his spiritual and compassionate support to Sr Monica.  

Sr Patricia Lenihan who is here representing Sr Mary Christian. Professor John Welsh and Dr Guy Haworth for their excellent medical care of Sr Monica over the last number of years, and to all the nursing staff in the Mary Aikenhead Centre who looked after Sister Monica every day so beautifully full of love, compassion and respect.  Sr Monica truly experienced our Core Values in action. I think the Venerable Mary Aikenhead would be very proud of all our staff.

To Sr Margaret for the singing today and to Stephen McGinley for the music. They are so wonderful at helping us with all our liturgical events.  

Sister Monica was born and brought up in Clydebank.  She is the eldest of four children - two girls and two boys.

Sister Monica attended Our Holy Redeemer's School which was the Catholic school for the whole of Clydebank.   The result being it was a really big school where everybody knew everyone else and had a great sense of community.  At the age of twelve, Monica moved on to Notre Dame High School in Dumbarton where she had to live up to the reputation of her clever cousins!!  She really enjoyed her days in Notre Dame and made many life-long friends there.

Following this, she moved to Notre Dame Teacher Training College in Dowanhill Glasgow where she spent three years.  She graduated from there in 1951 and was appointed to the staff in Our Holy Redeemer, where she taught for six years before joining the Sisters of Charity in Dublin in 1957, aged 28.

The big question all her friends asked her was why she needed to go to Dublin to join the Sisters of Charity.  Why did she not join the Notre Dames whom she trained with and who’s main apostolate was education.  However, Sister Monica wanted a broader congregation where, if at any time she wished to change direction, she would have this option.

So Sister of Charity it was!

She herself describes Ireland as “being in a foreign country”.  She found understanding their language was difficult but it was also the same for them, as they struggled with the Scottish accent.

As a novice she was sent to Temple St Children's Hospital for experience – although she was terrified of seeing anyone sick or bleeding!   But she considered this to be valuable experience.

In April 1960 she made her First Profession in Dublin and following this was sent to Birkenhead in England to teach in a Secondary School.

After three years she was called back to Dublin and was told to apply for a place at Dublin University to study Science and this was because Monica had Higher Maths and Science.  She graduated in September 1967 and immediately returned to her post in Birkenhead in preparation for the merging of our school with the Convent Grammar School.  In 1970 the merge was complete and after many teething troubles they managed to unite the pupils from both schools.

Monica’s mother died in 1983.  As her family were now married and living abroad this left her father, who was in his eighties, and suffered from heart trouble, completely alone.  Monica took early retirement from school and moved up to Clydebank where she was able to oversee her father's welfare. During this time, she was appointed Community Leader and Fulltime Chaplain to St Columba's School.

She really enjoyed the work in school as her years of teaching had given her a lot experience and she made many friends there.

Her father died in 1990.
Monica then went on Sabbatical in 1991 to Gonzaga University in America but after five weeks became ill, had surgery and had to return home. The following year she had a Sabbatical in Canterbury and really enjoyed this.

She then went back to Hackney in London and worked as School Chaplain in Cardinal Pole High School.  This was very interesting as more than 40% of the pupils were Afro Caribbean.  Monica found it quite challenging but very rewarding.

In 1981 she moved to Queensgate Villas in Hackney where she worked on the Archives and updated the Annals.  In December 2005 she moved back to Clydebank.

Both parents - Alex and Catherine Breen - died here in the Hospice.

Sister Monica was admitted to the Mary Aikenhead Centre on 6 March 2014 due to the deterioration of her condition with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s often develops very slowly over several years.  It is not always obvious to begin with as was the case with Sr Monica.  She had a wonderful brain and even to the end could be very quick with her answers.  Even recently, whenever you said to Sr Monica “are you all right”, she would quickly reply with “well, no, half of me is left”.

Sr Monica, at the very early stages of her illness, was very frightened she would be taken away from us.  She regularly came to my office to say “you won’t allow them to send me away Rita, will you?”  

In the Bible, you will find a passage that applies to any situation in life but this passage from John particularly applies to the most vulnerable: “In all truth I tell you, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.”  John 21:18

I had to constantly reassure Sr Monica that this would not happen.  Who do you have to make sure your wishes and choices will be heard and respected?  These patients are not only vulnerable in terms of their condition but also in terms of their care. How will you be cared for in the future?  Will you have someone to speak up for you?  Have you ever thought about this?  

Fortunately, very early on I discussed with Sr Monica about having Power of Attorney and this we did together.  So therefore as her illness progressed, I was able to take out the Power of Attorney and show her that no-one could send her anywhere else.

We have become a disposable society where if you are no longer able to make a contribution, you are deemed to be of no further use.  

Well remember that could be anyone of us tomorrow and therefore we need to continue to be advocates for the most vulnerable.

When you look at someone suffering from Alzheimer’s you could reflect on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”    How often Sister Monica used this phrase.
    
May Sister Monica now Rest in Peace.  Amen.

Sr. Joseph Helen Cunningham.

 

We are standing this morning on holy ground: the place where Mary Aikenhead spent the last years of her life as an invalid – a woman whose vision, courage and practical common-sense gave birth to our Congregation and to our long and graced history of service of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.Today we are celebrating the life of Sr. Joseph Helen, a woman who cherished that charism, serving those in need with fidelity and generosity, and who also spent the last years of her life here in the Hospice.

 

The readings this morning are both comforting and challenging.In the Gospel Jesus speaks of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life.He invites us to put our hope and our trust in Him and in His promise to be with us, steadily and constantly as we try each day to walk his way, to speak his truth, to live his life.It is an apt description of the life and commitment of the woman whom we are remembering here.

 

In her 103 years of life, Sr. Joseph Helen lived through historical and global changes that are impossible for us to imagine.She experienced seismic shifts in Church and state.She witnessed wars and famines on a world scale.Through all of those yearsshe remained steadfastly faithful to the constant core of who she was as an RSC.She was born Dorothy Cunningham in Ballacolla in Portlaoise on 1st July 1908. She was an only girl, with one brother, and was much loved by all.Her childhood and youth reflected the calm ordinariness of children’s lives at that time.Following her degree studies she spent some months caring for her mother who was ill and then secured a job teaching in Mountjoy St. School in Dublin.Her father was not impressed!His comment on hearing of that place was:“It doesn’t sound like much of a job but you like working for the poor and you’ve always been good at it”.She remained there until she entered the Sisters of Charity on 5th October 1931.

 

In the first reading we are told that God gives strength to the wearied; that those who hope in Yahweh will soar like eagles, run and no grow weary, walk and never tire.That was so true of J. Helen throughout her active life.She was missioned back to Mountjoy St. after her religious profession and taught there for 12 years.Following a year’s further study in Scotland, she went to teach in a Secondary Modern school inWalthamstow in England for a year.And then came the call to be one of our three founding Sisters of the Zambian Region, or Northern Rhodesia as it then was.

 

In 1948 they set sail, travelling for four weeks by boat – The Athlone Castle -rail, bus and lorry before arriving in Chisekesi Siding on a dark morning on 28th October 1948. Sr. Helen kept a diary of the journey which was printed for the 50th anniversary and which gives a fascinating insight into their journey and how they coped with, what was for them, such a strange and almost ‘alien’ environment.

 

One can only imagine the anticipation and anxiety, the challenge and the loneliness, the wonder and the doubts that marked that journey and her first months in Zambia.It was a place and people that she came to love and cherish.She committed herself to the education of girls and brought the gift of knowledge and freedom to countless women who still remember her with gratitude and appreciation.There are many past pupils with sad hearts in Zambia at the moment – their sadness at her passing tempered only by their gratitude that she is free from the debilities of her age.And that mourning is echoed this morning among our sisters there in the Region and here in this Chapel in the sisters who lived with her and shared her life for those 30 years.

 

Her first 15 years in Zambia were spent in the Teacher training college run by the Jesuits and began her work in promoting the education of girls – beginning with the setting up of a girls secondary boarding school in Roma in Lusaka.Nine years later she was appointed Regional Leader and on Independence day 1978she was conferred with the Order of Distinguished Service for 30 years of outstanding service to the people of Zambia in the fields of Education and Social work.

 

While she was a formidable woman in many ways, with high standards and expectations, her devotion to her religious life and her commitment to education was recognized and appreciated by all who knew her.She was a strict disciplinarian, spoke the truth without apology and demanded very high standards.At the same time her heart was compassionate and her generosity and hospitality were known and appreciated by all.

 

Like all of us, Helen has known suffering and joy, tears and laughter, pain and happiness, loneliness and friendship.And she had strong relationships with herfriends – too numerous to mention – but exemplified in the love and devotion of Sr. Mary Bernadette Collins and Catherine Fallon.Up to the end she valued and enjoyed her relationships with her nieces, nephews and other family members and followed their lives with interest, with love and with prayer.

 

In 1978 she was missioned to Ireland and worked on our Constitutions.Subsequently she was appointed as local leader to our community in Crumlin before her appointment to our Provincial Leadership team and consequent arrival here in Our Lady’s Mount in 1981.

 

Sr. J. Helen’s commitment to Mary Aikenhead's charism was single-minded and she never compromised on that.The second reading confirms her attitude to life:nothing outweighs the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus. It is only through Him, with Him and in Him that we can find life and happiness and fulfilment.Rooted in that conviction, she endorsed and embraced anything that served the people for whom she cared in a better, more dignified or respectful way.

 

She suffered in her growing debility and weakness these last years and all of us – family, community, friends and colleagues - were saddened as we watched her suffering and her struggle to cope.In spite of the wonderful, caring staff who surrounded her and the sisters and friends who were her constant support,she had difficult and dispiriting days.Yet she never gave up .Her faith in Providence was the touchstone of her life.In the midst of all her pain and letting-go she was confident that he was with her, holding her, comforting her and in the end, calling her to himself.And when that call came, sheyielded her spirit to the Lord, peace-filled, calm and trusting - blest with a death that had no struggle, no pain, no fear.And perhaps I can end with some words of hers, written in the diary of which I spoke, on her arrival in Chikuni:“Now that we have reached our Promised Land we must thank God and Our Lady for our very pleasant and on the whole easy journey which we have had . . . . “Those words echo, not only the journey to Chikuni, but her life journey, now at its end as she moves, we believe, into the fullness of the Promised land of God’s life and love.

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