Sister Hugh Walsh, MM

Born: June 24, 1893
Entered: April 3, 1923
Died: December 24, 1986

The joyful strains of carols and the smell of incense were still in the air after the Christmas Eve liturgy as Sister Mary Hugh Walsh passed almost imperceptibly into new Life at 10:55 P.M. At the age of 93½ Sister Hugh had been up and able to get around until the day before her death.  Sister’s death came as a surprise to us, but evidently she had had some foreknowledge of it, having remarked the day before to one of the nurses, “I‘m going home soon.” Sister Hugh was a great one for keeping on schedule. It seems she planned on celebrating Christmas in heaven.

Mary McGlade and Hugh Walsh, both immigrants from Ireland, had married in Leetonia, Ohio in 1883. Raising five children, 3 girls and 2 boys, in difficult circumstances meant hard work and few frills, but they created a home rich in faith and blessed by an atmosphere of optimism. Elizabeth Irene Walsh was born on June 24, 1893, the year Grover Cleveland took office and Carnegie and Frick were building their industrial empires in nearby Pittsburgh. The steel factories attracted thousands of workers from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland to that grimy, growing metropolis dubbed “Smoky City”. The Walshes moved there when Elizabeth was still very young and Hugh Walsh joined the ranks of iron workers. After Elizabeth graduated from Catholic grammar school, she helped at home for about four years. She then worked for the Lewis Neiman Clothing Establishment for ten years, first as a stock clerk and later as assistant buyer. Both parents died within 6 months of each other, when Elizabeth was twenty-nine. The next year she applied to Maryknoll, explaining simply, “I thought I would like mission work, so I mentioned it to my confessor and he told me what wonderful work it was.”

After entrance in April, 1923, she received the name “Sister Mary Hugh” at Reception, and made her First Profession of Vows in 1925. During those early years Sister worked in the Order Department at the “Field Afar” Office. When a group was assigned to take over the Children’s Home on the Hawaiian Island of Maui in 1928, Sister Mary Hugh was delighted to hear her name called to be one of the pioneers. In preparation she audited two courses at Catholic University that summer: Management of Children’s Institutions and the Problem Child. Both were to came in handy.

When the four Sisters got off the boat on Maui in the early Fall of 1928 and made their way to the home, they were enchanted by the lush vegetation, somewhat overwhelmed by the sight of over 100 children ranging in ages from a few months to the mid-teens living in very inadequate quarters and quite disenchanted by the number of insects and rat holes in the open grounds surrounding the modest institution. All of the challenges, including a leaky roof and no hot water in the laundry, were tackled with zest and determination. Sister Hugh made her Final Vows there three months later, in December. Her qualities of generosity, organization and good humor, along with her customary prayerfulness, contributed much to the little community. Often witty, sometimes outspoken, she was always a woman of integrity. She frequently offered to stay with the children so that the others could get away for free time and “her girls” were praised for their courtesy, order and homemaking skills.

Children of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American, Filipino and Hawaiian descent, some abandoned; some, wards of the County, deemed “incorrigible”; and some whose parents were at the Leprosarium on Molokai came and went as the years flew by. Each was received with love and no efforts were spared to help them develop into happy, responsible adults. Epidemics of pink-eye, boils, flu and scabies were brought under control. Those children discovered to have tuberculosis were transferred temporarily to the Sanatorium at Kula. Regular classes outside were attended and special courses, chores, excursions and sports filled in the free times. There was always more to do than time to do it in, but Sister Hugh’s philosophy could be summed up in the title of the book she kept in her dormitory cubicle: “It Can Be Done.”

Sports had always interested Sister. Indeed, she disconcerted her parents by playing baseball with her brothers at a time when young ladies were not supposed to do so. Later she acquired a reputation for being very knowledgeable about the teams, the players’ batting averages, etc., as well as the intricacies of football. If her special teams – the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame – were losing a game, she would go to the Chapel and pray for them. (If the Pittsburgh Pirates win the pennant next year, it will be no surprise.) Understandably, baseball became very popular at Maui Children’s home.

In March, 1940, Sister Hugh went to Monrovia, California. She helped with the dish-washing, in the kitchen and later when the hospital was opened, was in charge of housekeeping.  Sister seemed to have an inner strength that not only kept her on the job but also enabled her to use her talents to make life more enjoyable for those around her. There was always the humor. On one occasion when she was to accompany another Sister on a drive to the City, she said, “I’ll pray you get all the green lights.” When the driver responded, “Oh, I don’t mind the red lights” Sister Hugh’s quick reply was: “Well, if you don’t mind the red lights I’m not going with you!”

In 1978, at the age of 85, Sister Hugh was admitted to the Maryknoll Nursing Home in New York. The Sisters and the Lay Nursing Staff tell many stories of Sister Hugh’s devotion to her roommate, her many hours in the Chapel, how she would make her rounds to see that everything was going well, find the missing supplies, adjust the curtains
and then announce, “I must get back to my patient.” All agreed that they will greatly miss Sister Hugh, along with all those humorous remarks that kept everyone laughing.

There is no doubt that Sister Mary Hugh qualifies as one of Maryknoll’s more colorful characters. More importantly, there is no doubt that this woman, vowed to God and to the Mission of Jesus for 63 years, has much to teach us. Some of these lessons are implicit between the lines of this account; much of the richness of her witness is carried in the hearts of those who knew her well. In the prayer from the Christmas Eve liturgy we read:

“God, you make this holy night radiant with the splendor of Jesus Christ our light. We welcome him, the true light of the world. Bring us to eternal joy in the Kingdom of heaven.”

This Christmas Eve, Jesus welcomed Sister Mary Hugh into that eternal joy, united again with her parents, brothers and sisters and all those Maryknollers who have gone before her.

We give thanks and remember Sister in this Eucharistic Celebration and welcome Maryknoll Father Peter Byrne, who will lead us in worship.