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    A View from the Pew

    Remembering Sr. Theresa Sparrow, RSM

    Remembering Sister Theresa Sparrow, RSM

    Some people just get into your bones and stay there. You may not see them for weeks, months or years. Yet, when you do encounter them, time dissipates like fog that evaporates when the sun hits tar and burns away the steam. I think of Sr. Theresa Sparrow, RSM that way -- a sun that burned away the fog with her warmth and found a home within your bone marrow, where the meat and matter of life co-exist.  

    Sr. Theresa died last week at age 85. I met her when I worked at St. Julie Billiart in North Dartmouth, MA. I served as the parish music director. Sr. Theresa directed the hearty religious education program that served approximately 1,000 students. Formerly the coordinator of religious education for the Diocese of Fall River and a teacher with many years of classroom and administrative experience behind her, Sr. Theresa knew how to get the job done. She welcomed everyone and then rolled up her sleeves and went to work, either leading the team or working beside them. She combined wisdom and mirth that created a perfect recipe of insight, intelligence and humor. Often times the work day extended into fifteen hours for Sr. Theresa. I never once heard her whine or complain. Even when her severe rheumatoid arthritis kicked in and must have hurt like hell, Sr. Theresa just kept going. She was a cheerful ‘doer’.

    Sr. Theresa loved children and made time in her extremely busy day to babysit my daughter Martha when I needed to provide music for a parish funeral. She patiently took the time to decipher Martha’s conversation (“Sis Teesa, I wear my babing soop today,” translated, “Sr. Theresa, I’m wearing my bathing suit today,”) and would laughingly report back every single thing that Martha said and did during that hour spent with her friend ‘Sis Tee.” Every action, every conversation and all thoughts expressed by my little daughter would find their way back to me with loving and deliberate attention to detail. No person was too small to be considered unimportant by Sr. Theresa.

    After my first back surgery, Sr. Theresa caught me moving a heavy piece of furniture in the church hall near the music library. The heaviness of the furniture exceeded the recommended weight limit and put me in danger of rupturing another disk. Rather than chiding me for my stupid obstinacy, Sr. Theresa said with kind straightforwardness, “You know, Denise, someday your children will marry. You’ll want to walk down the aisle rather than be pushed down in a wheelchair.” I’ve never moved a heavy piece of furniture since that day, even when it frustrates the beeswax out of me. When tempted to ‘cheat’ and dismiss the endless restrictions ascribed to back patients, Sr. Theresa’s wisdom reminds to knock it off and ask for help.

    When the parish staff decided to book my original piece The Way of the Cross as a prayer event for St. Julie’s, I asked Sr. Theresa to narrate one of the voices. I’ve performed this work 48 times in 36 different parishes over a thirty-year period and heard many superb readers narrate this text. Sr. Theresa’s narration blew me out of the water. She didn’t read the text; she prayed it. Sr. Theresa’s narration moved me so much that I asked her to narrate the same text when I produced the studio recording of The Way of the Cross. When I commented on her poignant recitation, she just smiled. “I was living it,” she said.

    In 2001, Sr. Theresa fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a neck injury. My husband and I were in Boston the week after the incident occurred and went to Massachusetts General Hospital to visit her. As we entered the room, there sat Sr. Theresa in her bed with a steel ‘halo’ around her head and neck to secure them and prevent any movement and further fracture. “Well, you never know what you’re going to see in life, do you?” she quipped when we entered the room. Even in pain and anticipating weeks and months of painful recovery, Sr. Theresa could not resist inserting some dry humor into an extremely serious event in her life. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. If anyone believed that, it was Sr. Theresa.

    Sr. Theresa taught me many valuable lessons just by being herself. She was really one of the most authentic people I’ve ever known. Honest, humble and full of a lively joie de vivre, Sr. Theresa found pulsing life through her love of people and her service on their behalf. I could write much more about my memories of this great lady. But I believe that the essence of Sr. Theresa can be summed up in how she received each person that broke into her day.

    Often times, I would find Sr. Theresa buried up to her eyeballs in piles of papers, books and the materials that educators surround themselves with ‘just in case.’ When I knocked on her door to ask, “Do you have a minute?” to seek her advice or opinion, Sr. Theresa would put her pen down, push her chair away from her desk and beckon me in. “I’ve got all the time in the world,” she’d say. Even though I knew that she was lying through her teeth because of the paper evidence that surrounded her like an armed camp, I would sit in the chair across from her desk and have her undivided attention. Never did I feel hurried or worried that I might be taking up too much of her time. And if I did try to excuse myself because I thought that she might need to get back to work, her answer would always be the same. “Nothing that I do is more important than you. Come on in anytime.”

    I learned from Sr. Theresa that good ministry happens within the interruptions of our days. Life happens within the interruptions. The interruptions are life. That’s the good stuff, the interruptions, where the people and their events get into our bones and become a part of our own bone marrow. The interruptions shape us, our personhood and our ministry. I wonder if I can welcome the living Word when it appears as an ‘interruption’ as graciously as Sr. Theresa. If I’m in the middle of something ‘important’ and someone or something interrupts me, I think of Sr. Theresa more often than I can say.  “Nothing is more important than you. Come on in anytime.”

    Thank you Sr. Theresa. Well done, humble receiver of the Word and faithful doer. Rest in peace.