Sister Lelia Makra, MM

Born: September 29, 1903
Entered: October 15, 1926
Died: November 23, 1993

At the age of 90 Sister Lelia Makra died at 9:15 p.m. on November 23, 1993 in our Maryknoll Skilled Nursing Facility where she had resided since 1986.

Sister Lelia Makra was born on September 29, 1903 in Hungary and was named Elizabeth Helen. With her parents and brother, George, the family immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1911. The family obtained naturalized citizenship in 1924. Lelia’s parents and brother have long preceded her to heaven.

Sister’s Catholic education was in Cleveland including the Ursuline Extension College. Elizabeth entered Maryknoll in Ossining on October 15, 1926. Her First Profession was April 30, 1929; Final Vows were made, also at Maryknoll, on the same date in 1932. Sister Lelia was gifted intellectually and linguistically and had skills of adaptability, teaching and writing. Before her First Profession, Lelia began academic studies at Mt. St. Vincent in New York and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1932 with majors in Science and Spanish. Her first assignment immediately followed in that year to teach the 7th grade at the Japanese school in Los Angeles. A year later Lelia was assigned to Fushun, Manchuria where she studied Mandarin for two years, did catechetical work, taught in the novitiate for two years and was local superior for five years. In 1941, she was interned in Fushun and Mukden because of the war and repatriated to the U.S. with other Maryknollers on the Gripsholm in 1942.

Lelia’s next assignment was to open the first Maryknoll house in the Canal Zone, Panama, in 1943. She remained there until 1947 as Superior, doing catechetical and social service work, pastoral ministry with people with Hansen’s disease and with hospital patients. Lelia was again assigned to studies in preparation to return to Manchuria. Because of the revolution in China she was not able to pursue Chinese studies at Fu Yen University. She left Peking for Catholic University in Washington, D.C. to obtain a Masters degree in Chinese language, history and culture. Her thesis in 1949 was on a Confucian classic on the family.

Because the China mainland was closed to missioners, Lelia was assigned to Hong Kong in 1950 where she taught English literature in our elementary and secondary schools in Kowloon and Hong Kong. She did pastoral work with the refugees who fled China to Hong Kong and for three years studied the civilization of the Tang Dynasty and Elizabethan Tragedy at the University of Hong Kong.

In 1960 Lelia returned to the U.S. for what was known at the time as decennial. Having previously contributed short periods to promotion, Lelia began three years of mission education, vocation promotion and fund-raising in the Midwest until 1963.

In her own words, Lelia’s ‘fourth lifetime’ began in 1963 when she joined the first U.S.-based Team of the Better World Movement in Washington, D.C. and later in the diocese of Raleigh, N.C. The Movement is an international effort among Catholics to apply their faith to individual, family and national relations in the spirit of a Christian family. While in North Carolina, Lelia pursued historical connections of one of Maryknoll’s founders, Father Frederick Price, and also worked with inner-city residents to share her faith through witness and example.

In 1966 Lelia was assigned to Taiwan where she did catechetical work, was Secretary to the Taichung Diocesan Commission on Lay Catechists and worked on the translation of Chinese publications. She was, part of the time, with the Taiwan Geographic Survey of the Chinese Language Institute with the Jesuits and Chinese staff. At the time they did surveys as part of a world-wide study of human endeavors in all the countries where the Jesuits worked. The purpose was to ascertain if mission and pastoral work should be updated and how. The studies included family, religions, education, arts-literature/philosophy, recreation, science and technology. In the 1969-1970 issue of World-Mission, an article Lelia wrote on the Taiwan Survey was published. In 1972 Lelia returned to Maryknoll and worked for the Maryknoll Fathers of the Taiwan Region during the Society’s General Chapter.

At one time Mother Mary Joseph said that we of Maryknoll are to have a world-wide heart. In 1972 through the invitation of the Sisters of Social Service in Hungary and New York, Lelia went to Vienna, Austria until her golden jubilee in 1976. She engaged in a work which she felt was ‘for the Church and the whole world.’ Her particular responsibility was, as English secretary for Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, to edit the translation from Hungarian to English of his memoirs, a history of Hungary and the book on his experience behind the Iron Curtain. The Cardinal died suddenly in May, 1975. Amidst the keenly felt sorrow of his loss, Lelia remained to complete some of the work, arrange for storage of papers and memorabilia, and with the staff of eight, helped close down the Cardinal’s center. Lelia felt that her work with Cardinal Mindszenty was with a man of God and a priest of the Church dedicated to a message of hope for his fellow Hungarians scattered around the world.

While in Austria Lelia was able to visit her hometown in Hungary, the only member of her immediate family to do so. Reunion with relatives there was a joy Lelia said she long cherished.

Before her return to the Center in 1982, Lelia spent some time at Monrovia, two years with the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont, N.C. and one year at Epiphany House of Prayer in St. Paul, Minnesota. During that time she volunteered to study Arabic thinking that Maryknoll might want to focus on needs in the Mid East, an endeavor that did not materialize for the Congregation at that time.

Lelia’s friends are legend and span continents. She was loved and admired by many. She kept faithful contact to share stories, mission experiences, to tell about people she came to know and those she befriended. Wherever she was, Lelia maintained a constant communication with Maryknoll, New York; she loved the Community and its work of mission. Wherever she was and, particularly while in Europe and the United States, she always expressed joy at any chance or planned meeting with a Maryknoll Sister or priest, and there were many.

Over many years and many places, Lelia was influential in the entrance of a number of women to become a Maryknoll Sister. She had a warm affection for the many Sisters with whom she was in mission and her commitment to mission and people marked her life. Lelia’s love of quiet and prayer and her evidence of one of the qualities Mother Mary Joseph highlighted for a Maryknoll Sister: ‘I would have her with an adaptable disposition!’ were traits fostered throughout her life. A determined woman, Lelia yet carried the essence of calmness and had a calming effect on others, all the while, a tireless worker in and for mission.

Lelia was known world-wide as a classical Chinese scholar. One of her more famous publications was the 1961 translation from Chinese to English of “Hsiao Ching,” the Confucian Classics of Filial Piety. The publication was reprinted in 1971 and used by the University of St. John in their courses in Classical Chinese. Editions of the publication were well received in East and West, including Europe. Sister Lelia felt that the teacher Confucius was for all ages, over time, and she was pleased that Christians and those of other faiths would have an opportunity, in our modern time, to look at the meaning of filial piety and family. Thomas Merton singled out the publication in two articles he wrote on Oriental Wisdom, one in The Catholic World of May, 1962 and China Culture Quarterly in June, 1962 in which he said:

‘The translator of the ‘Hsiao Ching’ is a Maryknoll Sister, Sister Lelia Makra, who has a profound knowledge and love of Classical Chinese thought. She has done her task superlatively well.’

We may say that Lelia lived her life superlatively well, a life few of us could follow or emulate.

Lelia’s time at the Center from 1982 to 1986 was marked by short periods in the Maryknoll Nursing Home because of poor health. When up and around, she did volunteer work in Archives. A great suffering for Lelia was failing eyesight. Eventually in 1986, she had to move to the Nursing Home. Physical diminishment was a sore trial to one who has been so active in so many ways and with so many people. As in Matthew (25:23), we can truly say: ‘Well done good and faithful servant …. enter now into the joy of your God.’ As we bid farewell to Sister Lelia, we express our gratitude to her and to our Creator for her life and her many gifts, used so generously for mission. She was indeed a world-wide missioner with a world-wide heart.

As we gather to celebrate the life and memory of Sister Lelia, we thank our Maryknoll brother, Father Edward Manning, for presiding at our liturgy of the Resurrection.