Sister Mary of the Cross Keating

Elizabeth Keating
1841 - 1896

The members of this Institute commemorate today the death of a cherished Sister and a devoted co-labourer in the person of Sister Mary of the Cross, known in the world as Miss Elizabeth Keating.

Born in Hastings, Peterboro Co., about the year 1841, of good Christian parents, but whose position as pioneers in that district afforded them few opportunities of educating their family, hence she was deprived of the advantage of an early and thorough school training. Still the deprivation of these indispensable benefits in our day prevented not a vocation to the Order of Sisters of Charity which was unconsciously formed in her young heart.

In the spring of 1864, a visit of two Sisters from our Community to the home of her father, while collecting alms for the poor under their care, greatly strengthened her desire to consecrate her life to the service of God and His poor.

While the Providence Novitiate was in its infancy, Miss Keating at the age of twenty-three entered upon her apprenticeship of charity, devoting all her energies to serve the neglected and the afflicted.

There are no incidents recorded of her noviceship that would single her out from her companions, nevertheless, Sister was industrious and charitable, and, cheerfully endured the hard labors and great poverty of the little Community at this period of its existence.

On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 1866, the privilege of pronouncing her vows was happily accorded Sister Mary of the Cross. The ceremony was performed by Very Rev. P. Dollard V.G. in St. Mary’s Cathedral and the event was very pleasing and interesting.

Sister Mary of the Cross was one of the Missionaries, who laid the foundation of the Holyoke Mission in 1873. In this new field of labour God’s work was great and demanded untold sacrifices, and she worked with an energy, a love, and a devotedness that won the hearts of the most obdurate. She sincerely loved the poor, nursed the infirm and heroically encountered difficulties and hardships in the service of the homeless little ones under the Sisters’ care. It might be said of her, that master passion was love of the poor and the suffering. So ardent was her zeal in securing succor for the destitute and comfort for the sick, that she sometimes merited a reproach for her want of well-regulated charity.

She had charge of the hospital in Hadley Falls, when the parochial schools in the city of Holyoke were entrusted to our Sisters and although the house was small and had but few accommodations, the poor patients were cheerfully and intelligently nursed under the kind supervision of our deeply lamented Sister Mary of the Cross, who was peculiarly gifted with sympathy for human miseries and by her devotion and tenderness many a reckless spendthrift was gained to God.

The most eventful epoch in the career of our dear Sister and the one in which we find her extraordinary qualities as a nurse more vividly portrayed, was her service among the small pox patients at Mill Point, (at present known Deseronto) in the year 1879. Not only did this good Sister volunteer to go and minister to the victims of the deadly epidemic, but she manifested great joy when appointed to accompany Sister Mary of Mount Carmel to the plague-stricken Village, and, it would be difficult to estimate the amount of ceaseless labor, self-sacrificing attentions and patience involved in this undertaking. She was likewise called upon to aid two of our Sisters who were nursing patients affected with the loathsome disease in Tweed in 1884 and rendered valuable assistance in caring the afflicted. A third incident of her burning zeal and heroic courage is recorded in 1887 when the much dreaded small pox broke out in Smiths Falls. By the prayers and labors of herself and generous companion, Sr. Mary Alphonsus, among the sick and dying for several weeks, she had the consolation of seeing great good accomplished in that locality.

During the later years of Sister’s life God subjected His servant to peculiar and painful trials, doubtless that she might become purer in His sight and be a living holocaust on the Altar of sacrifice. She became restless and troubled, was frequently misunderstood by her Superiors and companions, and although patiently borne, she suffered much on that account. Her health prevented her from engaging in the accustomed active works of charity which privation was in itself a very heavy cross. Yielding to the false interpretation of her own religious views, our good Sister fancied her contentment would be restored by a change of residence, she accordingly petitioned her Superior for removal to Holyoke, a step this devoted Sister bitterly regretted the remainder of her life.

It was at this time that the question of separation was in agitation and a few days after her arrival at the mission she saw, with grief, the unsettled state of affairs. Her position was a distressing one. She had taken leave of her parent house, contrary to the will and wish of her Superiors, and in consequence of this act, she could not reasonably hope to return; on the other hand, she was not slow in perceiving that her presence in the mission was very unwelcome. There is no denying the fact that she made a grievous mistake. Harassed in mind and sadly disappointed, she struggled on from day to day until the final separation was proclaimed. She saw the happy band of faithful daughters of St. Vincent de Paul take their departure for their Mother House, Kingston, and bade them adieu with a sorrowful heart.

The thought of her position goaded her almost to desperation. Our Lord had deprived her of that happy freedom of spirit enjoyed only by those religious who walk in the well-beaten path of simplicity and obedience.

Three months later, Sister Mary of the Cross was forced to leave the Community in Holyoke and throw herself on the mercy of her Mother House. The journey was made alone; Kingston was reached on New Year’s Eve, 1892. In the absence of the Superior General, who was engaged at the opening of the convent in Perth, isolation from the members of the Community was ordered by her Ecclesiastical Superior. She pleaded with tearful eyes and supplicating voice for a refuge in the cherished home of her religious infancy. Days passed and no alleviation to her anguish. Her conscience forbade her to abandon the vocation to which Almighty God had so marvelously called her more than thirty years ago, troubled and dejected she knew not what to do. Most of her time was spent in the chapel praying to the Supreme Consoler, enclosed in the Holy Tabernacle, and here it was that this desolate soul derived strength and grace to endure the trial.

January 12, 1893, witnessed the termination of the bondage of Sister Mary of the Cross. Our ever kind-hearted Archbishop Cleary expressed a wish to have Sister re-admitted and the Community with the tenderness of a loving Mother opened its arms to receive the prodigal.

Employment was at once given her among the poor and infirm whom she loved so well and where she toiled so long and faithfully. During the annual retreat in mid-summer, full atonement was made for past offenses and none greater edification than our sorely-tried Sister. The fervor and zeal of former years rapidly returned, she cared the sick with whole-hearted devotedness and efficiency, despite frequent and violent attacks of headache and disordered stomach. She was often known to spend the greater portion of the day ministering to the poor and afflicted without having tasted a morsel of food. Sister especially dreaded the trial of becoming useless and, as she said, a trouble to others; and it is a well known fact that she frequently besought our Divine Lord to spare her this great cross.

During the six months preceding her death our Sister was occupied chiefly in nursing the sick in their own homes. Through her skillful and patient care, was spared the life of a father of a large helpless family, Mr. McFadden of this city, and while attending still to her convalescent patient Sister was seized with severe cramps. Returning to the convent, the pharmacist administered some simple remedy, as there seemed no reason to anticipate anything serious. Monday morning symptoms of the fatal disease peritonitis were visible, accompanied with excruciating pains. Perceiving that the end was not far distant the Superior, with the tenderness of a fond mother, gently warned her that recovery for her was impossible. A hopeful peace seemed to fill the soul of our dear Sister and submitting joyfully to the will of heaven, she immediately prepared to receive the last Sacraments. She grew worse rapidly, her poor frame, racked with pain rendered her an object of pity to those around her, yet in the midst of these intense sufferings neither murmur, nor complaint escaped her lips. Thursday morning at an early hour Holy Communion was brought to her, soon after a stupor came on, interrupted occasionally by incoherent words, which sounded like the echo of some inward prayer and she relapsed into her agony. The Sisters hastened to assist by their prayers in her dying moments, one who was always ready to lend a helping hand in the toils of every day life. Her agony lasted bout three hours, at 2.30 in the afternoon her soul purified by suffering passed to its reward, March 5, 1896, in the fifty-fifth year of her earthly pilgrimage, thirty-two of which had been sacrificed in the service of Christ’s poor, the prayers and pleading of whom, we fondly trust, have placed her at the feet of the eternal. Peace be yours dear Sisters: peace that follows the hard fought battle, the dearly earned victory.                           

Sweet spouse of Christ! beloved one!
Thy beauteous mission is fulfilled,
They journey here on earth is done;
Thy noble, tender heart is stilled.

From regions of celestial bliss,
Oh, watch o’er loved ones toiling still,
And pray for those who now so miss
Thy loving care and generous will.

The intelligence of our deeply lamented Sister’s death was received in the city and surrounding places with sentiments that corresponded to the universal esteem in which she was held and the gratitude which so many families owed her. Crowds came to pay their tribute of respect and pray beside the inanimate form of a true Sister of Charity, who in some way had sympathized with them.

The requiem service was celebrated with the accustomed ceremonies and the remains reverently consigned to its last resting place. Let us honor the memory of our loved Sister Mary of the Cross on this anniversary by special and liberal suffrages for the repose of her.