Homily at Funeral Mass of Sister Martha Keenan
By Sister Redempta Twomey
18th April, 2009
It seems fitting that our sister Martha should have died during this lovely Easter octave when the whole church is ringing with Alleluias because Christ is risen. I say fitting because, you remember, it was to her great and loved patron, St Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, that Jesus revealed ‘I am the Resurrection.’ And Martha, robustly and unhesitatingly proclaimed her faith in him, her friend and her Lord. Our Martha shared this faith; her ‘Yes, Lord, I believe,’ echoed through a long and adventurous life and now resounds in the mansions of heaven where she surely, with her lovely patron, is sitting at the feet of Jesus. So even as we grieve today at the loss of this faithful woman, this loved cousin, this caring relative, this dearest sister, we taste something of the joy that is hers now, the hope her death brings us in the sureness of the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus.
Martha, the only daughter of her parents, was a young woman in her mid twenties when she entered the convent in 1941. Mature and reliable, with some business experience behind her, she responded wholeheartedly to that inner call, unique to each one of us to commit her life to Christ. As a missionary sister she was ready to go wherever he would send her. In her choice of the motto which she had inscribed on her ring when she made her final vows, she showed her readiness to accept whatever God would send her, be it joy or sorrow: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’
This was the word she lived by, the word that motivated all her actions, that propelled her on unimaginable journeys, physical and interior throughout her long life. That ‘Fiat,’ that ‘Yes’ of Mary the Mother of God, Martha made her own. So that even when old and grey, as the psalmist says, she retained the spiritual alacrity of a true disciple of the Lord.
Gentle and firm, with a gracious manner she was always, as a demanding consultant observed in her student days in the Mercy Hospital in Cork, ‘the perfect lady and the perfect nurse.’ An excellent administrator, who met difficulties with courage and patience, she was surely the perfect choice to be Matron in the Ruttonjee Sanatorium in Hong Kong. This was an old converted naval hospital where our Sisters undertook to care for and treat tubercular patients, a disease which was rife there at that time. It was a challenge of no small proportions to ensure the smooth running of this busy hospital, but one in which Martha, only recently qualified, proved her mettle.
After 6 demanding years she was then asked to join 3 other sisters and open a mission in Korea. Arriving there on a bitter winter’s day they were welcomed by the Columban Fathers and gradually found their feet in a land decimated by the recently ended Korean War. Sisters Rosarii and Enda, who are here with us today, were among that first group and have great memories of Martha, her resourcefulness, her hard work and, most importantly, her sense of fun. Because the truth of it is, there may have been a lack of basic necessities, but of fun and laughter there was plenty. Martha herself loved to recall her years in Korea, enriched as they were by the love of the Korean people who found in her a kindred spirit. She worked in various centres, opening clinics, looking after the old, visiting the sick and wherever she went she gave her utmost and never expected of others what she herself could not do. A natural teacher, she willingly shared her skills and always encouraged others to share what they learnt. Whether in Mopko, Chunchon, Samchok or Cheju, she was, as one sister told me, a great back-up, especially in times of crisis. Martha was ready for anything, unfazed by difficulties and, with the sound instincts of a natural talent, she steered a course through many a rocky road.
This readiness to respond to whatever was asked of her, her deep missionary spirit centred on Christ, her vibrant ‘Fiat’ were surely the fruit of a rich interior life. She loved St Teresa of Avila and drew great sustenance from her writings in the midst of her busy life. While she surely emulated her Patron, St Martha, in that she was busy about many things, she never neglected to nourish the contemplative Mary in her. Martha lived, and died, with the unassailable conviction that, as we heard in the first reading, nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.
A great missionary, she was available for whatever God wanted. Available to be sent to America and look after the seminarians in the Columban fathers’ seminary; available to be sent to England and set up a clinic in the large overseas students’ hostel our sisters had undertaken to manage. And available, finally, to come to Magheramore and leave her beloved Korea forever. Not, of course, that she ever retired here, don’t be fooled. She fulfilled many roles with her usual efficiency, maintaining all the while her gracious and welcoming spirit which so endeared her to the community and to the many visitors who came here over the years. The unremitting kindness of the staff in the nursing home here in Magheramore filled her with gratitude, especially in these last months when her energies lessened
In Dante’s lovely image old age is like lowering your sails as you drift into harbour. Over the last year or so we saw Martha gradually lowering her sails. As she entered the shadowlands of death she did so with a gratitude that suffused here whole person. In what was to be my last conversation with her some days before she died, she asked me to pray that she would be patient as she entered this final phase. And then, with a truly radiant smile she said, “I have had a long life and God is very, very good to me.”
Now she experiences the eternal goodness and beauty and joy of this God whose loving and faithful Martha she was all through the 94 years of her life. And for this we give thanks with Resurrection Alleluias as we lay our lovely sister to rest sure in the hope of meeting her again in the Risen Lord.
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