Homily at Sister Valery Hetherton’s Funeral Mass, Magheramore, 23 Jan 2019
Sister Valery Hetherton
Funeral Mass, Magheramore, 23Jan 2019
Isa 25: 6-9; Jn 15:14-17
Sixty years ago, on the very month of January, Sister Valery set out on her first mission assignment in response to the call she first heard some years before that date. With three other sisters she got on the boat in Dunlaoghaire over to Holyhead and from there made the month long journey to Hong Kong.Last Saturday evening the final call came, and with her unfailing readiness, she set outon the journeythat would bring her to the Father’s house; bring her to the great banquet that awaited her, full, as we just heard of good,juicy food and fine, flowing wines. Is there anyone here who could doubt that our lovely, lovely Val, is relishing, and with great gusto, the lavish spread in the Kingdom? Was she not a woman who knew how to celebrate at the drop of a hat?
Today we are united in grief, but surely also united in hope. And, let it be said, united in joy. Joy because we can believe that this woman, ‘the handmaid of the Lord’ as her motto states, this beloved sister and aunt, is now enfolded in the loving embrace of this Lord whom she so faithfully served all her life. And joy too because, having ourselves experienced her wonderful celebratory nature, so inclusive, so welcoming of each individual, we know that in heaven she will be completely at home. No transition programmes needed!
This is a day of memories, memories shared by her family, her friends, and her community. Her much loved family, her nieces and nephews were treasures of a special kind. How she valued your visits to her, especially in her last illness! And what a grace and blessing it was for you and for all of us, thatyou, Frances and Larry, could be with her those last moments in the hospital as she left us to go to that better place the Lord made ready for her.
“I have called you friends,” Jesus said to his followers, words in today’s gospel. Friends, not acquaintances or employees or slaves, but people who are held close, who share their lives, their joys, their sorrows. From her early days in Ballinlough in Co Meath, right through her long life Valery lived this friendship with unfailing confidence, trust and joy. Her love of the Lord was seen in the joy that spilled over,touching and welcoming each one she met on her journey. It often seemed that she was one of those truly blessed people for whom human relationships and communication seemed effortless, almost a natural ingredient of her make-up.
We saw it in Hong Kong, where in the humid heat of summer she nursed patients with tuberculosis, inspiring the staff, radiating kindness and understanding as she dispensed the medicines. In Freni Home, a convalescent home for recovering male patients, she could bring a smile from the most weary man. She moved among them with gentleness, with encouraging words, helping them to recover from this debilitating disease. A true messenger of hope, they responded to her gentle outreach, almost by osmosis learning to be more caring, more considerate of one another. When, in the 1970s, she was sent to Fanling, a rural clinic on the Chinese border she again made many friends, among the farmers, the poor, the children. And how our sisters loved to visit there, sure of a warm welcome, of fun and laughter. There were sombre moments too as they looked across at the nearby mountains of China and prayed for the millions who had not yet heard of Christ. This missionary, this faithful ‘handmaid of the Lord’ would always hold the Chinese people in her heart, and in her prayer.
Her skill in treating tubercular patients and the knowledge of this scourge of a disease which she imbibed during her ministry in Hong Kong, made her the ideal person to be sent to the Philippines to help stop the spread of the disease. She went first to the Zambales Province where the Columban Fathers operated TB clinics. The poor were her special concern; she visited remote barriosto promote better care, especially for the children. And when in later years she did pastoral work in Manila, again people were drawn to her and took her to their hearts. The vibrancy and joie de vivre of the Filipinos delighted her and she knew herself to be blest.
Back in Ireland, she undertook many different roles, always with a good heart, and a willingness to give of her best. Her unfailing trust and good humour overcame the inevitable difficulties that come our way. Her years in Ashford were enriched by the many friends who knew her to be a wise and caring listener, and someone who loved them. How she enjoyed the little garden with plants from her late and much loved sister Trixie’s plot. Here in Magheramore we were always sure of her warm welcome. “Come and join us in a cuppa”, she’d say when you were just passing the community room. Her enthusiasm for an outing was contagious, as she’d encourage you to join in. Visits to or from old and new friends kept her young and vibrant. Every day she went for a walk in these lovely grounds. “The snowdrops are out,” she’d announce. Or, “Did you see the lovely clump of violets down the back avenue?” Pope Francis could have had Valery in mind when he wrote, ‘To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope’ (LaudatoSi). If the old Jewish story is true and God’ first question to us will be, “Did you enjoy my creation?” we know what a resounding “Yes!” our friend will give.
Today’s readings tell us that death will be swallowed up, all tears wiped away; we heard of friendship that is rich and fruitful and that will last forever. We thank God for these words and for giving us a glimpse of his great love mirrored in the friendliness, and warmth and faithfulness of our lovely sister who now is face to face with the Lord she loved so well. We can well say, with the poet Padraig Daly, that what we feel this day is surely,
“An upsurge of gratitude
For the way you blessed us.”
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