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maria furlongSister Maria Furlong

1928 - 2017

Born: 28th December 1928

Entered Religious Life: 16th October 1950

Died: 23rd December 2017

 

The following eulogy was given by Chris Abeyta, a very good friend and colleague of Sr. Maria. This is followed by a tribute from another friend and colleague, Dana Vasquez.

How do you sum up the life of one of the most incredible persons you ever met in just a few minutes? Inside that tiny little body of Sr. Marie, was a woman of immense faith and unwavering character. Sister wanted to see the best in everyone, and did not accept anyone not trying to do their best. In her class, all I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed. It was going to be Sister’s way or the highway…and she wasn’t going to LET you take the highway! You were going to learn whether you wanted to or not!

I first met Sister many years ago when one of the athletes that I was coaching had her for Honors English and said that he was not doing very well in her class. I walked into her classroom, introduced myself to her, and asked about the boy’s grades. After she explained to me that he wasn’t turning in his work, she proceeded to question me about basketball…and what needed to be done so the team would do better! It was then and there that I knew 2 things: #1. ALWAYS complete your work CORRECTLY for Sister, and #2. This woman knew her sports! That was the beginning of a long friendship that grew over the years. After almost every game, sister wanted to come in and recap the game. She often said “What were you thinking when you ran that offence or defense”? After she retired, I got phone calls!!

Sister Marie LOVED sports! Not just basketball, but football, volleyball, baseball, tennis, hockey, and (of course) horse racing. She loved all sports, but she truly loved all Mater Dei sports. Watching the boys and girls sporting events brought light to her eyes. When she was still working, she rarely missed a game. ..home or away. After she retired, we made sure to get her to all the games we could so she could watch “her” teams. This included road trips up to the Bay area a few times, as well as Sacramento. We always had a ball! Sister truly loved the athletes and considered them her personal teams. She was strict and unyielding in the classroom, but she was also strict and unyielding in her love for the teams at Mater Dei. When she went to live in San Pedro, Mater Dei supplied her with live stream feed for all the games and events. This truly made her day! Sr. Michelle told us that she had EVERYONE in the house watching the games with her. ..whether they wanted to or not! She even offered up her daily prayer petitions on the day of the state football championship game for Mater Dei…and, of course, they won!

For many years, Sister lived in the convent at St. Columban’s. This was close to our house, so she became a frequent dinner guest. For such a little woman, she sure could put it away! She also had a fondness for Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, (as much as I do) so it was always on hand. She didn’t hesitate to have a 2nd cocktail after dinner because she reminded me that she wasn’t driving…but I was. My wife would go to visit Sister at St. Columban’s and they would have tea. It took me awhile to figure out that the 4 hour tea parties included Jameson’s too! For several years, Christmas Eve midnight mass at LMU (which started at 10:00 p.m.) saw Sister riding shot gun with us. She loved going to mass up there because she could see her “LA sisters” as she called them. We were worried that it was so late for her, but after mass, she was all over the chapel hurrying to say hello to everyone that she knew! We were one of the last to leave.

I got married in Las Vegas (in a Catholic church, not by Elvis!) and Sister couldn’t wait to go! She really loved Vegas too! She loved horse racing and told us stories of her one relative who was a jockey. When she was in Marycrest Convalescent Hospital, we went to see her on Kentucky Derby day, and there was Sister, wrapped up in her Mater Dei blanket, race sheet rolled up like a pro, rooting for the horse she wanted to win. I didn’t know if she had money on that one!!

On what was to be our last trip to the house in San Pedro right before Thanksgiving, we had a great visit with Sister. She was excited because, as she said, she was going on an outing just for her that night, and my son happened to call. We were telling her earlier how he wasn’t going to be able to come home for more than 2 days because of his work schedule. She wanted to talk to him. After a few pleasantries, she said “So what’s this I hear that you don’t have the time to spend with your parents on Thanksgiving?” She really put on the Catholic guilt trip! He said “Gosh Sister, quit busting my chops, I have to work!” She was smiling from ear to ear. After we hung up, she turned to me and said “See, I’ve still got it!”

I got the call from Sister Michelle on a Tuesday that my beloved Sr. Marie was in hospice. She wasn’t expected to make it for more than 48 hours. My wife and I went up immediately to see her. She looked even tinier in the hospital bed, and for the most part, she slept. Sr. Michelle and Sr. Kathleen were with her and they told us that she was mildly sedated and most likely would just sleep. We all told “Sr. Marie stories” and laughed as we remembered her life. Amazingly, after about 2 hours, Sister’s eyes just popped open and we bent over her bed and just talked to her. We told her how much we loved her, and how much she meant to us. I swear to you, her Irish Eyes Were Smiling! She was smiling and patting the bed with her hand. I will never forget the look of joy in her eyes! The doctor’s said that she would only make it for 48 hours after she went into the hospital. True to form, Sister Marie was going to do EVERYTHING on her terms and lived a week longer!

Sister Marie definitely marched to her own beat, with her strong faith, her tough love in the classroom, her undying love of Mater Dei sports, and her gentle love of all. She was a little woman who made a big impact on my life. I could, and did, talk to her about everything. She had an amazing insight. Her little “energizer bunny” body may have given out, but she was as sharp as a tack! I want to personally thank Sr. Michelle for taking such good care of her, and for all of the Sisters who stayed by her side around the clock in her last few days so she would never be alone. I will truly miss her and heaven got one hell of an angel! I Love you Sister.

Tribute by Dana Vasquez
Teaching English at Mater Dei High School with Sister Marie was a true blessing. She led with a quiet confidence that could be heard with very few words. She demanded the very best from her students, her colleagues, and herself. Her spirit and passion for teaching, learning and living life have made a permanent imprint in my heart. Her grace, guidance, wisdom and sense of humor will be truly missed! 

 

 

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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