Sister Catherine Cullen, MM

Born: October 20, 1924
Entered: September 6, 1945
Died: July 3, 1990

“The woman of character, where is she to be found? She is more precious than any jewel. She speaks wisely and her words are king.” (Book of Proverbs)

As I reflected on the life of Catherine Cullen, those words from the Book of Proverbs seemed to me to do justice to the person of Catie. Those who knew Catie, knew she was a woman of few words; when she spoke her message was clear, straightforward with no frills. But if her words were few, her life was profound in that she knew what she believed in and lived that out in a simple, clear, consistent way. And so I have chosen a few lines from Proverbs to highlight some aspects of Catie’s life and that in so many ways mirror our own commitment.

Catherine Cullen was born on October 20, 1924 in Milton, Massachusetts, one of six children born to James and Ellen McMorrow Cullen. Her education was at St. Gregory’s grammar school, Milton High School and Bentley’s School of Accounting and Finance, in Boston. Catherine entered Maryknoll on September 6, 1945, with these skills that would serve her well throughout her life.

At Reception she received the name Sister James Ellen. She made her first Vows on March 7, 1948 and was assigned to Crichton House working at The Field Afar, the Seminary kitchen and using some of her bookkeeping skills in the Maryknoll Society offices as well as here at The Center. Catherine made Final Profession on March 7, 1951 and soon after that was sent to Carney Hospital in Massachusetts to study nursing. In 1959, two years after graduation, Catherine was assigned to Korea.

“She reaches out her hand to the helpless and gives to the poor.” (Proverbs)

Catie’s life and mission in Korea began in Pusan, where the people were still suffering the results of the war. But as larger cities and towns were able to offer more services to the people, Catie began to move to the more marginated, isolated areas of Korea where the people had less. After four years in service to the people of Jeoung Pyeoung, where the Maryknoll Sisters clinic was about the only place the poor farmers could receive medical care, her next 20 years were spent on islands. First, to Kang Wha Do, a large island west of Seoul but still in need of social and medical services; then, in 1971 Catie, along with Sisters Joan Sauvigne and Kathleen Marie Shea, went to Paek Young Do, a very remote island just 8 miles from North Korea. The people there for the most part never left the island, never saw any other parts of their own country. Finally in 1974, these same three Sisters answered the call for personnel to help care for some 4,000 people afflicted with Hansen’s dsiease on the island of So Rok. There Catie made her home for 14 years. She shared in the life and death of some of the poorest of the poor, economically and physically, but surely the richest in terms of human values. It was there too, that Catie began to feel her own physical limitations. But she turned her energies into perfecting the art of Oriental brush painting and calligraphy. Through this art, she not only gained new insights into the Korean people but also into herself. For this skill demanded discipline and quiet reflection. Perhaps it was a special gift given to her in preparation for her last ministry. For surely through constant discipline and centering she deepened her faith, sharpened her vision and sorted out the essentials of life.

“She is strong and dignified and looks with confidence to the future.” (Proverbs)

When Catie learned that she was ill in 1988, she accepted that as she did everything else; with a deep faith and without fanfare. She returned to the Center and lived as fully as she could for as long as she could, always making choices that were consistent with the options she had made to be in solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged. In her own struggle with treatment for two years, she continued to reach out her hands to the more needy here at the Center. When it was evident that the illness progressing, two weeks ago she chose not to have any more treatment and was admitted to our Maryknoll Nursing Home on June 27, 1990. Six days later at 5:50 on the morning of July 3, 1990, Catherine Cullen died very quietly, with friends at her side.

Perhaps the best thing we can say about Catie, is that she was so very real and uncomplicated, so in touch with who she was before her God. She struggled with her own shortcomings as we all do, enjoyed some small successes, as we all so, and she never lost the desire to learn. Her ever inquiring mind made it always fun to be with her. Simply put, she was just one of us, and that’s what made it so comfortable to be with her. Catie was a strong, steady, constant in the lives of many. Here we have found a woman of character!

I would like to add here, that in January of this year the Central Governing Board asked Catie to design our Christmas card for 1990. Catie chose the simple Chinese character for “Universal Love.”

As we begin this Liturgy of Resurrection and hope, we extend our sympathy to the members of Catherine’s family. We also offer our prayers and support to the Sisters of the Korea Region.

We welcome now our Maryknoll brothers, Fathers Jack Corcoran, Ken Sleyman and Mike Duggan, who will lead us in the celebration of New Life.