Sister M. Justina Schantz, MM
Born: March 26, 1898
Entered: September 24, 1924
Died: December 17, 1989
When Sister M. Justina Schantz slipped into a coma Sunday morning, December 17, her family was notified that the end of her long life was near. Even so, Sister’s death at 11:15 that night, after less than a day in critical condition, surprised many, yet seemed to reflect Sister Justina’s penchant for doing things with dispatch. The Nursing Hone Staff had noticed that she had become gentle and quiet the last two weeks. For those that knew Sister the longest, it was as though her life-long pattern of nervous energy was being laid down, replaced by a new freedom and longing to go to the God she had so faithfully served.
Alicia Audrey, named for her maternal grandmother, was the third of nine daughters born to George Francis and Margaret Theresa O’Brien Schantz. Brooklyn, home to the Schantz Family became part of New York City in 1898, the year of Alicia’s birth and the famous bridge to Manhattan was still a wonder of the late nineteenth century world.
Family life was focused on Church and school and involved them in many activities. Alicia graduated from St. Agnes Grammar School and went on to finish high school at St. Joseph’s. “I have no unhappy memories of childhood,” relates a family member. Frequent group photographs were taken after Mass on Sunday when everyone was dressed up and periodic reunions brought the extended family together. This closeness was maintained over the years and gave much joy and support to Sister Justina throughout her 65 years as a Maryknoller.
After working as a stenographer for several years Alicia entered Maryknoll, along with 38 other postulants in 1924. (Three of her sisters also became religious: two with the St. Joseph Sisters of Brentwood, both deceased, and her older Sister M. Georgina, a Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, who resides now in Rockville Centre.) Sister M. Justina, the name Alicia received at Reception, put her clerical and homemaking skills to work at the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers offices. Her first mission assignment was to Los Altos, California, where she made her Final Profession of vows in 1930. After a short time in Los Angeles, doing office work and caring for children, Sister was assigned back to New York where she engaged enthusiastically in promotion and fund raising at a time when frequent trips to parishes in the Region demanded a lot of energy and involved fairly rustic means of transportation.
The Motherhouse was completed in 1932 and Sister Justina was the perfect choice as full time Portress. For most of us that is the overriding image we have of Sister: The first one encountered at the front door – welcoming and efficient, alert and accommodating, with an uncanny memory for names and an uncommon ability to maintain relationships with families over the decades. For first-time visitors she constituted the initial experience of Maryknoll hospitality; for frequent guests she was a familiar friend who made them immediately welcome; for Sisters returning from the missions the first sign of home. Stories abound that illustrate Sister Justina’s qualities as Portress, especially on visiting days when dozens of families passed through our portals and received her VIP treatment. One story describes her with a telephone in each hand, conducting at the same time a conversation with a third party while keeping an eye on the children romping through the parlors and hallways. Very little seemed to phase her, including the time the Novice Mistress called down to ask her to notify the father of one of the Sisters that he was to take a nap on the sofa in the parlor because he had come from a great distance. On Profession days or other big occasions like mission-sending when hundreds of guests poured in, Sister Justina was like an orchestra leader directing a symphony and enjoying every minute of it. Many family members recall her well and still asked over the years,“How is that Sister that was always at the front door?” For one who was “always there” for 31 years, it is not surprising she is so well remembered. There is no doubt that Sister Justina considered her assignment as her apostolate and a unique, valuable contribution to mission. There were, doubtlessly, times when she longed for an overseas assignment, too, but this did not diminish her commitment to the task given to her here where she used the many opportunities afforded her to further the cause of mission. In a 1970 note to the Central Governing Board, Sister Justina reflected on the efforts over the years — “Our hard work and sacrifices never dampened our spirits because we knew it was a way we could send our missioners and educate the young Sisters.”
The shifts in religious life after Vatican II were sometimes a cause of concern for her. In hindsight this time of transition did certainly have its moments of uncertainty and tension. Speaking in priority terms Sister wrote, “Times are changing seems to be the theme song, but this should never change our unity, love and generosity as a Congregation” — an assessment we could all agree with.
Another note in 1973 reminded the Board of Sister’s upcoming retirement. It states, “After serving as Portress for 31½ years I will be retiring as of May 1st, with no regrets doing God’ s Will. Those years, while very busy ones, were rewarding ones knowing they were gaining fine friends for Maryknoll’s work.”
The relative leisure of the new status allowed Sister Justina to enjoy same things left mostly to the margin of the day. There was more time for reading and prayer and longer visits with the family and friends she loved so dearly. Music was always a source of great pleasure. Indeed, toward the end it was the only thing that always evoked a response even when she was no longer able to verbalize. One of the Nursing Aides brought her 2 children to the Maryknoll Nursing Home once to do break dancing which absolutely delighted Sister Justina.
Deteriorating health from 1979 on necessitated skilled nursing care though Sister’s deep sense of independence made her initial adjustment to life in the Nursing Home very difficult. But she made many friends among the Staff who cared for her with great gentleness and professionalism. Early on, Sister Justina was able to go down to the Kitchen in her wheelchair to help peel apples and greatly enjoyed sharing the results when the pies came out of the ovens.
If the traditional image of St. Peter as keeper of heaven’s portal is true, we can only surmise what a welcome Sister Justina received. She may even be able to give him same professional suggestions. We all rejoice with her as she enjoys the hundredfold so richly deserved. At the same time we sympathize with Sister Justina’s family and many friends who feel the pain of her loss.
Our Maryknoll brother, Father Jack Corcoran will lead us in this celebration of Resurrection and Remembrance.