Sister Loretta Spencer, MM

Born: April 3, 1914
Entered: November 21, 1933
Died: August 27, 1989

On Sunday, August 27, we here at the Center were shocked to receive word of the sudden death in Guatemala of Sister Loretta Spencer.

Loretta was born on April 3, 1914, in New York City and placed for adoption through the New York Foundling Hospital. Joseph and Mary Spencer joyfully received Loretta into their home in Rochester, Minnesota in 1916 and as time went on, a deep love of each other and God grounded their lives. This is best shown by the letter Loretta wrote to Mother Mary Joseph after Loretta’s mother died in 1946.

“My father died when I was ten which left mother and me alone. Later when she knew I wanted to enter Maryknoll, she told me to go as she would get along, and would die happier if she didn’t keep me back. The night before I left her she was crying and she said to me,’Loretta you’re the best thing I’ve got, but you’re not too good for God.’

Loretta attended St. Teresa’s College in Winona, MN. from 1931—1933 until she entered Maryknoll. She made her First Profession of Vows on June 30, 1936 and Final Vows on June 30, 1939. She continued her studies after this at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart receiving a B. A. and then a Master’s Degree in Religious Education.

In 1937, Loretta was assigned to Hawaii where she taught school. She was later moved becoming superior and principal of our school in San Juan Capistrano, CA. in 1956. After a few years as assistant Junior Mistress, Loretta was assigned to Central America spending one year in Nicaragua and then 21 years in ministry among the poor in a marginal area of Guatemala City. She loved this work of evangelization and remained enthusiastically involved in it until the day of her death.

It was during the liturgy on Sunday, August 17, 1989, that we at Monte Maria were notified by Fr. Joseph W. Halpin, M. M., that Sister Loretta Spencer had been taken to the emergency room at the National Hospital at about 1:00 in the morning.

On Saturday morning Loretta had gone to her usual work of supervising the monthly distribution of food to the poor. About ten o’clock she felt ill and walked home. Catherine Cussen, Loretta’ s companion and partner in the pastoral ministry, was away on vacation and Loretta did not want the cook, Dona Luz, who lives with them to notify anyone because “this will pass.” During the night Loretta’ s condition became worse. The cook arranged with a neighbor to take Loretta to a local emergency room. Since burials here are held within 24 hours after death, funeral arrangements were completed by late evening and the body was brought to the funeral home about 9:30 p.m. Word had spread quickly, helped by announcements at Sunday evening Masses, so there was a great crowd waiting to receive it. The body was taken to the parish of the Most Precious Blood where both Loretta and Catherine worked. There, the Mass of the Resurrection was concelebrated by eleven priests at 3:00 P.M.

Although events happened very quickly, almost all the Maryknoll Sisters, Associates, Society members, and Lay Missioners in Guatemala were present for the Wake and/or Funeral; every house was represented as well as the community in El Salvador. The Maryknoll Fathers could not have done more for us, offering help and advice in so many necessary details and consoling us by their brotherly presence.

The outpouring of support from people from all walks of life who came to give tribute to Loretta was an overwhelming sight. All had been touched by her gentle, loving presence during her 21 years of mission in Guatemala. The sight of some 32 cars and 4 buses in the funeral cortege must have made the city wonder what important person had died. For a person who never wanted to make a fuss, Loretta Spencer had the most glorious funeral ever!

Loretta gave herself to the people she served, climbing up and down the hillsides to visit the poor in their homes; visiting the women’s prison; sharing her contemplative, joyous spirit with all whose lives touched hers, whether rich, poor or in between. As so beautifully expressed by one of the parish members, a Eucharistic Minister and President of the Parish Social Works Committee, Loretta’s charism was to promote relationships among those of economic means and then motivate them to share what they had with the poor, uniting both groups to work together for a better world.

As her Maryknoll Family we still miss her sisterly, caring presence, and the laughter she brought to our days with her famous jokes, told with such finesse. Even as we mourned her death she made us laugh as Catherine Cussen recalled one of Loretta’s favorites about the pastor paying tribute to the recently deceased: “What you see here is but the shell; the nut has already gone to heaven.” We think that Loretta would want us to laugh and rejoice with her now, as she shares in God’s eternal joy.