My Aunt Sis won her battle with death last evening slipping into the arms of the angels who had been waiting patiently for 95 years for one of their own to return home.
Through no effort of my own I am related to a number of awe inspiring people whom have endured and survived amazing hardships and still managed to love.
My Aunt Sis, Sister Isidore Bollich also known as Edna Agnes before vows, was one of those family legends that I’d hear about but never see. She was a Medical Missionary sister, and she was only allowed to return home from the missions every five years or so. And even when she returned she had to stay in the convent in town. So, to a young boy, there was an air of mystery about her that intrigued me.
The first time I remember meeting her was a pretty stoic experience. She returned to the family homestead in Mowata, La. and was decked out in nun regalia, which meant layers and layers of clothes and a habit. My Granny had this large statue of St. Therese de Liseux, her patron saint. And seeing Aunt Sis I thought that might be a statue of her. So there was a lot of awe and reverence in my little mind, and I’ll confess a little bit of fear.
But she had this smile. It was a smile that meant business. And I respected that smile and that uniform.
Her stories became legends as well. Her travels through Venezuela and West Africa were amazing. Tales of the lepers and the poorest of the poor would leap from her lips feeding the hungry nieces and nephews sitting at her feet who would lap them up as manna.
And when she wasn’t home we would often receive these blue pieces of tissue that would come from Kokofu, Ghana. Every square centimeter was covered with handwriting from a fountain pen. And I would devour each word and ask my Mom to explain those I didn’t understand. Then Mom would give me my own blue tissue to write her back. I had to write the addresses first and then use the rest of the space to write the letter. I’ll admit I didn’t do that as often as I should have.
But she would respond quite often, and one day in the mail I received a rather large envelope that was stuffed. It felt like clothes, but when I opened it up my mother was shocked! It was the fur from the back of a chimpanzee that the lepers had killed to eat. She especially noted the big cut in the skin. “That’s where they stabbed it,” she told me. I thought it was the coolest thing I ever had, but Mom was horrified, which only increased the value to me.
Her mission in Ghana was a leprosarium, which her order administered. She’d send me photos of the lepers, but nothing was especially gruesome. One photo showed eight or nine men holding what looked to be a 20-foot long boa constrictor. She said they sliced it up into steaks that looked delicious. But because the lepers had touched it she was not allowed to eat any of it.
She related the story of a drunken man banging on the doors of the leprosarium one evening. They could not allow him into the compound for obvious reasons, but they worried about him being in the jungle alone. They watched as he went to sleep under a tree. Later they heard the unmistakable sound of army ants marching through the jungle. They knew if the ants found the man that they would only find bones later, so the sisters left the compound with torches to stave off the ants from the clueless drunk. She said the ants came forward like a dark blanket, and they would drop their torches on them. That part would recede while the rest would try to advance. All night they kept the ants at bay until the drunk awoke later and ran away.
We’d often send care packages from our community to her. That was a rare experience because for one thing it was quite expensive. And for another there was no way of guaranteeing the the contents of the package would arrive at the intended destination. Apparently, there were postal inspectors in Kokofu whose habit was to confiscate contraband, or in this case, clothes that fit.
She instructed us that if went sent her a pair of shoes to only send one shoe. Then send the other one separately. We had to remove zippers from slacks and dresses and mail those separately. Apparently, inspectors allowed inferior products to pass.
Once we sent a large box filled with all sorts of clothes to help the missions. Aunt Sis brought the box to the local tribal leaders for distribution. She sent me a picture of those same tribal leaders in beautiful women’s dresses and brightly colored skirts wrapped around their head. And they were all men. But the leaders got to pick first from the box. That was one of my earliest lessons in cultural diversity.
Another story she told me was when a patient at the leprosarium would die they would have to bring him to the village to be buried. But the citizens did not want the lepers, dead or alive, to come into the village, so there was a bridgekeeper that would inspect all vehicles, usually horse-drawn wagons, coming from the colony. So they had to dress up the deceased in regular clothes and prop him up between two nuns in the buggy seat pretending he was a passenger. The bridgekeeper would inspect the empty casket in the back of the wagon and allow them through. Then the nuns would drive to the cemetery and put the deceased in the coffin where others would be waiting to inter him.
I remember receiving the wonderful news that Aunt Sis had been promoted in her order and was being sent to Rome as a secretary general. She told me should have to take a six-week Berlitz course to learn Italian, her seventh language. She passed in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every day on her bicycle commute to her office.
She did her job dutifully, but her heart was still in the missions.
I remember on one of her visits that my cousin Cynthia asked her when she was coming home to stay. She said she would never do that. Her dream was to die in the missions and be forever with those she served.
Instead, she returned to Venezuela living in a tin shack serving the poorest of the poor. She and her fellow sisters were the only clergy in the community and often officiated at baptisms, weddings and funerals. And every few months the priest would visit and consecrate enough hosts to distribute at services in his extended absence.
She spoke fondly of shooting pigeons in the church rafters with BB guns to shoo them away and keep them from making a mess on the parishioners.
She was a matter-of-fact kind of person. Her faith was matter of fact. Her life was a matter of fact. And her God was a matter of fact. It didn’t matter what you believed. She believed enough for the both of us. There was no gray area for her. Everything was black and white, right and wrong. And there was never a question of which side she was on.
She did return for an extended visit at the end of 1974. I remember that vividly because I had just completed college seminary and was home for a visit before the holidays. Aunt Sis and her two sisters, my Mom and Aunt JoAnn were sitting on the sofa when my Mom got up to excuse herself and dropped to the floor. She died that evening from a ruptured aorta.
Aunt Sis amended her travel plans in order to stay with us while we struggled with the loss of my mother. It was a struggle for her as well trying to acclimate herself to home life having been in the missions for so long.
Not long after Mom’s death we forgot to set a place for Aunt Sis at the table. I remember we were having chicken stew. But she pulled up a chair with her plate, and at some point in the meal I realized that she had no silverware. I apologized for neglecting her, but she said it was no problem. She had fashioned a spoon from a chicken bone and was eating her rice with it. She said in the missions they were experts at improvising.
Later in life she was recalled to the the mother house in Philadelphia. She returned home every year afterward for a visit to the family church in Mowata where we would celebrate Aunt Sis with a Mass and reception. I remember remarking how funny it was to watch the priest celebrant thinking he was in charge. Aunt Sis had a way of commandeering a room, and a church was no exception. If she wanted to sing we would sing. If she wanted us to pray we would pray. Put away the missals because they do you no good here.
Very early on I recognized that she wasn’t just my aunt. She was everyone’s nun. And she had a heart big enough to accommodate anyone who came near, friend or foe. And the latter was always converted in time.
It’s customary to say Rest In Peace, but I have a feeling that she’s just beginning. The early Christians always marked the day of death as their birthday because they are reborn to the Lord.
Happy birthday, Aunt Sis. Until we celebrate together.
Categories: What was I thinking?