Sister Gertrude Marie Shaughnessy, MM

Born: March 9, 1902
Entered: July 2, 1931
Died: November 13, 1985

In today’ s Liturgy we are reminded once again of the mystery of death – a death that brings forth Life. We especially remember our Sister Gertrude Marie Shaughnessy who died two days ago on November 13, 1985 at our Maryknoll Nursing Home. Tomorrow is her feast day, and we are certain, in our faith, that Sister – who enjoyed celebrations and festivities – will celebrate it in grand style: in the company of her Creator and all the Saints!

Sister Gertrude Marie’s life journey of 83 years began in Woburn, Massachusetts, where she was born on March 9th, 1902, the only child of Susanna McGurn and John Owen Shaughnessy, both Irish immigrants. She was baptized Mary Josephine. Her mother died while Mary was barely 2 months old, and it was her stepmother, Delia Burke, who brought her up together with her only sister, Nora. Mary Josephine graduated from the High School of Commerce in Worcester, Mass., and completed a 2-year stenographic course at Becker’s Business College in the same city. In the succeeding years she worked at various companies, using well her secretarial skills.

Influenced by a co-worker who had joined a Foreign Mission Order, Mary Josephine entered Maryknoll on July 2nd, 1931. At her formal Reception, she received the name: Sister Gertrude Marie. On January 6, 1934 she made her first profession of vows and three years later, in California, she pronounced her final vows.

During the first year after profession, Sister Gertrude Marie was assigned as one of Mother Mary Joseph’ s secretaries. Later, she did secretarial work for the Maryknoll Fathers in the Seminary at Mountain View, California, and in the Field Afar Office here at Maryknoll. In 1947, her cherished dream of serving in the foreign missions came true when she was assigned to Balboa, in the Canal Zone of Panama. For Sister Gertrude Marie and the people of Panama, it was love at first sight, a love which endured and grew during the 38 years she lived among them. Whether teaching a CCD (Conference of Christian Doctrine) Class in the Parish, or visiting the patients at Gorgas Hospital or comforting the lepers at the Palo Seco Leprosariurn, Sister’s great love for the people was clearly evident.

Long before the Church’s and our Maryknoll documents indicated an option for the poor, Sister Gertrude Marie had already made this precious choice of caring for the poor and marginalized people of Panama. Our Sisters who knew her there speak of the untiring efforts with which she devoted herself to the service of the people. They remember fondly how around Christmas time each year, Sister Gertrude Marie would organize a project for the Leprosarium patients which involved fund raising, visiting each patient to see what they wanted, shopping and wrapping of gifts and delivery at a celebration usually in the wee hours of Christmas morning. Though she involved all the Sisters in the project, Sister Gertrude Marie would be the one to see each patient personally to inquire what each would like – and she made certain that they got exactly what they asked for – no matter what the price. This, she explained, came from what her father always told her, “Mary, you are not only dear, you are expensive.” To help support her ministry with the poor, Sister Gertrude Marie collected and sold cancelled stamps.

It did not come as a surprise when in April, 1976, Sister Gertrude Marie became the first U.S. religious to receive Panama’s medal of outstanding achievement: The Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, from President Demetrio B. Lakas. The patients at the Leprosarium petitioned the President to recognize Sister’s 30 years of service. Then again, on March 30, 1978, Sister Gertrude Marie was one of three individuals whom the Canal Zone government awarded with the Gold Panama Canal Honorary Public Service Medallion. This award cited her “Devotion to the countless thousands of the young and old, the needy and the sick of the Isthmian community. She has given help to the poor in areas where others are generally unable to go.  She has given help to the poor in areas where others are generally unable to go. She has given of herself and provided a channel by which others can assist the needy, the old and the abandoned in the inner city section of Panama.”

On the occasion of her 50th Anniversary as a Maryknoll Sister, on May 8th, 1981, she was presented with the Panama Canal Master Key Award in the rank of “Angel of the Locks.”

All these awards showed how highly regarded Sister Gertrude Marie was as a person and as a missioner. However, more than these, are countless tributes and gestures of love from the people who had become her friends – like the couple from Palo Seco Leprosarium who, unfailingly each year, would come to the Sisters’ house to present Sister Gertrude Marie with a handful of flowers on her feast day.

The separation from the people she dearly loved made Sister Gertrude Marie’s decision to leave Panama, in July of this year, exceedingly painful. She was admitted to our Maryknoll Nursing Home where she was visited frequently by friends and Sisters from the Panama-Nicaragua Region and Community members here at the Center.

Her sister, came to visit just a few days before Sister’s death. To her family members we want to extend our heartfelt sympathy. We know we are all united in spirit as together we join our Maryknoll brother and friend, Father Paul Newpower, in offering this Eucharistic Celebration of love and remembrance of our dear Sister Gertrude Marie.