Our celebrations of the 30th Anniversary of Columban Sister Joan Sawyer´s death in Lima, Peru, on 14th December last were made very special by the presence of Joan´s niece, Hilary, who travelled from Co Antrim, Ireland for the occasion. On the afternoon of the 14th, Hilary set off with a bus-full of people from the Parish Espiritu Santo where Joan had lived and participated in the community the year before she died and from where she left for the prison ministry each day.
Before we began our journey we united in a moment of silence with the community in Antrim, Ireland, who was also commemorating Joan´s anniversary. During the 45 minute ride to the cemetery we prayed and sang hymns. Entering the cemetery, Campo Fe, we were welcomed by the sprays of a beautiful water fountain glistening in the glorious sunshine and greeted by a chorus of birds, surely Joan´s way of saying welcome and thank you.
As we gathered around in silence, Hilary placed a beautiful wreath of flowers on Joan´s grave, received and arranged the flowers brought by the people and knelt in prayer. We were all deeply united in that precious moment “a moment in and out of time.”
The parish priest, Fr. Edgar Valdivia in the name of the Peruvian people also placed an arrangement of white roses as an expression of gratitude and appreciation of Joan´s total giving. Interspersed with song and music, many people expressed memories of Joan recalling with deep emotion and gratitude Joan´s life of total service to the poor and those most in need.
Sister Mary O´ Dee read the Gospel of the Annunciation recalling Mary´s “Yes” chosen by Joan as her motto, “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to His Word.”
After a pause, Hilary surprised us all by singing “The Londonderry Air” gently and softly, just like Joan might have sung.
Sister Mary Mulcahy thanked the people present for their constant and faithful presence these past 30 years.
Fr. Edgar Valdivia spoke about Joan´s extraordinary dedication and commitment to her ministry, the missionary spirit and work of the Columban Sisters here in Perú and in many other countries where they work especially with the poor.
With a final prayer we ended our pilgrimage renewed in faith and hope. Together in the bus we shared refreshments as we made our homeward journey with thankful hearts.
On the following morning, Sunday 15th, we were able to share some memoirs, write-ups, pictures, etc. of the events of Joan´s death with Hilary when Ana María Mulqueeney , who had lived with Joan was very pleased to converse and to share her recollections. Also we shared a beautiful , touching and reflective video of the Life of Joan prepared by Sister Erisa Lee which Hilary loved.
On the evening of the 15th we celebrated Mass in the parish church, the church from where Joan was laid to rest 30 years ago. Our church was beautifully adorned for the occasion. Our main celebrant was Columban Fr. Cathal Gallagher accompanied by Fr. Edgar Valdivia.
To begin our celebration, Hilary lit a special candle in memory of Joan.
The First Reading from the Prophet Isaias read by Sister Eufrasia García summed up for us Joan´s life.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and return prisoners to the light…”
The Gospel Reading from Matthew 11, 2-11 reiterating the message of Isaias in the First Reading brought home to us even more, that Joan was indeed chosen to play a very special role as a messenger of the Good News to the poor.
Fr. Cathal gave the homily and being present at the funeral that day, 30 years ago, vividly brought to life touching memories of the sentiments of the multitude of people on the long walk to the cemetery. He recalled the cries for justice, peace, respect for life, dignity, and solidarity which were expressed in various forms along the way.
“The crowd that day,” Cathal said, “realized and felt deeply the injustice and violence committed in their midst and they were more than willing to walk every step of the way to show their solidarity in bringing about a more just society. They were united with Joan who had given her life accompanying the prisoners and helping them to find hope amid violence and injustice and they knew they were witnesses to the presence of solidarity and love even in the most difficult situations.” The much repeated phrase to the cemetery still rings today in the hearts of many Peruvian people: “Joan you will live on in the hearts of your people.”
As the gifts were presented at the Altar, we were much connected with Joan as Hilary, accompanied by Columban Sisters, and some close friends presented Joan´s ring, her blood-stained handbag, her cross and chain, her personal agenda, credentials, photo, and flowers. Each offering was commented on creating an atmosphere of quiet reflection and prayer.
At the end of the Mass Sra. Rosa La Madrid (Friend) presented to Hilary, a scroll as a token of gratitude from the people of Perú.
“I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:36)
Then we happily shared refreshments which Hilary had provided for all. It was time to say Goodbye and it was lovely to see how the people spontaneously formed a queue and one by one came to Hilary to express their appreciation and gratitude.
On the morning of December 16th Mass was celebrated in the section of the prison where Joan ministered. Fr. José Calve, Chaplain to the prison, very cordially welcomed us and had all in readiness for the celebration.
Joan would have loved the choir who sang and played with much feeling. Around at both sides of the pavilion were seated a large group of friendly youth participating with much attention. Sister Ana Mazola spoke with affection of her memories of Joan when Joan came to participate in the Prison Ministry. She spoke of her gentleness, her kindness, her dedication, her compassion, and her untiring commitment to her ministry
Fr. Jorge Alvarez Calderon (a long-time friend of the Columbans) was the principal celebrant. He was accompanied by Fr. José Calve and 4 Columban priests. In his homily, Fr. Jorge recalled the terrible scene which was vividly portrayed on the television on the night of the 14th. It was, he said, an incredibly unjust, violent crime with total disregard and disrespect for human life. It was an absolute massacre.
Then he asked Hilary, how old she was at that time and to share with us how she feels now. Hilary was eighteen years old and hearing the news of Joan´s death, she said, “The family was in total shock.” As days passed, months passed and the years passed, recalling and remembering Joan, we can now say, “This is how Joan would have wanted to die.”
Concluding the Mass, Sister Maura Gallahue thanked everybody for their presence, solidarity and prayer.
After the Mass we were invited for refreshments prepared by the Pastoral Team in the room named after Joan Sawyer, where Sister Maura presented to Hilary a replica of the Cross that marks the location where Joan and the seven prisoners lost their lives. This special cross was made in the prison.
Hilary´s visit would not have been complete if we did not have the opportunity to meet up with Mercy Sister and nurse, Mildred McNamara.
Speaking with Hilary, Sister Mildred unfolded her story from the first moment of hearing the news of Joan´s death. “Realizing the urgency of the moment,” Sister Mildred said, “I put aside my personal grieving, and thinking of Joan and the Columban Sisters, I set out immediately to give a helping hand.” Sr. Eileen Roe had Joan´s clothes ready and Sister Mildred went to the morgue and had to wait many anxious hours in very difficult circumstances before she could prepare Joan´s body for burial, her last loving service to Joan.
On arrival at the parish church El Spirit Santo, Sr. Mildred said she will never forget the Columban Sisters standing in wait to receive Joan: Sisters Eileen Roe, Mary Nolan, Brigid Sullivan, Ana María Mulqueeney, Eileen Rabbitte. Joanna Krupa, Anne Marie Smith, Mary Clune, Rita O´Dea, Elizabeth Doyle, and Perlita Ponge.
“It was a grace giving moment for me,” Mildred said, “as the Columban Sisters carried the coffin of their sister, Joan, a missionary, a martyr, into the church, and the huge crowd of people who gathered around , inspired by Joan´s spirit of love and total giving reached out to touch the coffin.”
Then we chatted more as we shared the tea, sandwiches and fruit cake with typical Mercy hospitality.It was a lovely evening, a beautiful evening, and Hilary was profoundly grateful.
As I end my reflection on Sister Joan Sawyer´s 30th Anniversary, Liam Lawson´s lovely song comes to mind and I quote a few lines:
| “There’s a time for remembering
A time to recall
For the moment so blest
For wherever we gather
In the light of God’s grace
There will ever be a place.”
By Sister Mary Mulcahy who has been on mission in Peru over 25 years