Biographies

Sister Mary Xavier O'Donnell, MM

Born: May 26, 1902
Entered: September 24, 1924
Died: January 28, 1988

We gather this morning to celebrate the life and death of our beloved Sister Mary Xavier O’Donnell. We welcome so many of her friends who have come to support us and to celebrate with us. We welcome Father John Devaney, Passionist, who will lead us in this celebration of Resurrection.

Mary Rose O’Donnell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 26, 1902. She was the oldest of three children born to Joseph and Catherine McGettrick O’Donnnell.

After graduating from St. Mary’s Grammar and High Schools in Cambridge, she worked as a secretary. Mary Rose entered Maryknoll in 1924 and at her formal reception received the name “Sister Mary Xavier.” In April 1927 she pronounced her First Vows and made her Final Vows in April 1930.

She became secretary to Father James Anthony Walsh, co-founder of the Maryknoll Society, soon after her arrival at Maryknoll. Working side by side with him, she early on became imbued with the Maryknoll spirit. Early in her Professed life (1932-1937) as Mistress of Novices and Postulants she worked closely with Mother Mary Joseph. Sister Xavier’s loving heart was deeply compassionate toward all she met. Her mission was always the people with whom God’s loving providence placed her. She tried to instill in all a deep love for God, for Maryknoll and for the peoples of the world. In 1938, Sister Xavier was missioned to San Juan Bautista, California. Soon after she began her studies for a B.S. in Sociology and completed an M.A. certificate in Sociology from Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio, Texas, in 1946. Then began her long and well-known ministry in social work – opening the Catholic Social Service in Stockton, California, that same year. There, as wherever Sister was, the staff was free and loving and united because she was as giving and as loving in those relationships as she was with those who came for help.

Sister Xavier’s life and ministry from 1939 to 1959 led to her involvement with the Mexican people in San Juan Bautista, the poor needing help in Stockton and the black people in Walterboro, South Carolina. In preparation for her work with the Puerto Rican Community in Chicago from 1959 to 1963, she went to Puerto Rico to study Spanish.

The heat, language study, home-visiting took its toll on her limited physical strength. She worried about her future work in Chicago. Would she have the reserve to do it?  “Maryknoll knows my physical limitations. God will take care of it all,” she said. After 5 years she was uprooted from that work among the people she dearly loved to respond to a call from Monsignor Ivan Illich. There for one year at the Center of Intercultural Formation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Monsignor Illich would admiringly refer to her as the “grand old lady.”

Then came the call to the 1964 General Chapter and subsequent election to the Maryknoll Sisters General Council. She always complied with assignments, but leave-taking was never easy as the people with whom she lived and worked became so much a part of the very fiber of her being. After her service to the Community, she returned to Stockton in 1968 and worked part-time at the Farm Workers Office. She lived the next ten years there with Sister Mary Driscoll and Dr. Janet MacLean. During those years she renewed friendships, volunteered for many things, visited elderly infirm people for the Department of Welfare and tutored children in reading. She was awarded a plaque as a volunteer for the San Joaquin County in 1976.

Sister Xavier carried a storehouse of memories, lovingly told, often with delicate humor, with no embellishment. Each person keenly remembered. Her capacity for detail was remarkable. And that gift, that memory of Maryknoll ,was recorded on video in 1987 when the Maryknoll Fathers went to Monrovia to make a tape of Sister Xavier’s “remembrances” – a priceless resource and gift to us now.

It must be said also, that Sister Xavier knew misunderstanding which brought heartache. Her love of God, Maryknoll, and the Church; her wide reading, sensitivity to need, to freedom, and to change; her deep reflections on the mystery of God’s loving providence and design, prepared her for Vatican II. She welcomed liturgical changes, changes in religious life and especially the concept of Church as the people of God. For all who were struggling through the 60’s, there was a listening, responding heart in Sister Xavier. Over the years she carried on a voluminous correspondence, writing intimately to each person, resonating with all that was going on in each one’s life.

Unfailingly she sent the message, “Don’t fret, or worry, always trust in God’s abiding love.”

Good health had not been hers for many years, but she forged ahead to the best of her physical ability, taking telephone duty, reading to others, attending lectures. She died at Santa Teresita Hospital about noon on January 28. Those of us who were with her felt God took her, whose heart was so given to Him, completely to Himself.

Sister Xavier will be greatly missed by all those whose lives she touched, but her love, her words, her presence will continue to influence. In her own deep capacity to love intimately, she reflected to all, “God has called each one by name and loves each with an everlasting love.”

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, upon hearing of Sister Xavier’s death wrote to Sister Luise Ahrens, “It is my prayer that the Lord will welcome her into the fullness of His Kingdom and reward her for her goodness to others, especially for her valuable contribution to the Hispanic Community.”