Sister M. Benigna Foley, MM
Born: December 20, 1902
Entered: October 15, 1925
Died: December 26, 1982
We gather in Christmas time to celebrate the new life of our Sister Mary Benigna Foley, who died in Phelps Memorial Hospital on Sunday, December 26, 1982.
The Church envelops Her celebration of the days of Christmas with the memory of holy people who witnessed to Jesus in various ways: Stephen, the young man who was martyred because of his faith and works; John, who died in old age speaking gently the words of wisdom and love he had written so well and lived so fully; the Innocents, child victims of a ruthless desire for power.
We, who are nourished by the Church’s tradition, and are part of her living memory, are privileged to have a similar experience. This year, our celebration of the Advent and birth of Jesus, has been shaped by the very sudden deaths of Sisters Peg Hanlon and Gert Vaccaro, and by the quiet, patient dying of Sister Benigna.
Sister Benigna’s faithful, long life has gifted us and countless people with the witness of loving service – open, cheerful, and reverent. Sister had been ill for several weeks. The nurses at Phelps told us that on Christmas night they went into her room and heard her praying, “Come Lord Jesus, I’m free now.”
Margaret Anne Foley was born on December 20, 1902, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the daughter of Joseph and Sarah Donovan Foley. She was one of the older children in a large family. Margaret attended school in Cambridge, and took a business course at Burdett College. Margaret entered Maryknoll on October 15, 1925, and at reception received the name, Sister Mary Benigna – “kindness.” She made her first profession on April 30, 1918, and her final vows in 1931.
Sister Benigna was assigned to Hawaii in 1928, and remained there for 20 years. Her business and accounting skills were well used throughout her life in Maryknoll. In Hawaii she taught bookkeeping and did administrative services.
In 1948, Sister returned to the Center where she served in the Maryknoll Fathers Treasury and in our Promotion Department. In 1954, she was assigned to Guatemala, to assist with the business and financial affairs of the new Monte Maria Academy. She found time to serve in teaching as well as in the office. In 1962, Sister wrote, “The girls started bringing in a pound of some food a week. This they present personally to the workers on the compound. We are trying hard to get our girls to become aware of the poor, and they do get shocks, as when two people started fighting about a package that was being given our last week. Some of the classes have worked out budgets which prove that the poor do not receive enough pay to live on.” Sister Benigna was known for her love of and service to the poor and for the simplicity of her own life.
In 1970, when we were beginning work among the Navajo Indians in New Mexico, Sister Benigna offered herself for this mission. She served in pastoral work and as bookkeeper for the Diocese of Gallup until 1975. In 1976, she was among those Senior Sisters beginning ministry in Terryville, Connecticut. It is characteristic of her that when in 1979 there was a request for Sisters to fill a need in El Salvador, Sister Benigna wrote to the Central Governing Board and expressed her willingness to go to El Salvador.
In 1981, Sister Benigna went to Greenville, Mississippi, a state with a Catholic population of l%. She remained there for two years in pastoral work until failing health necessitated her return to the Center. In one of her accounts of life in Mississippi, Sister Benigna wrote, “In my work at the office, too, I had a nice experience speaking to an elderly group of maybe 35 – 40 people who come under a nutrition program. Once a week a spiritual talk precedes the meal, and I was asked to give it one day… although this spiritual public speaking is not ‘my line,’ I could think of no excuse except cowardice, so I accepted… I asked the dear old tired folks to close their eyes and envision two tiny birds, perched on a fragile twig and singing high in the tree. Listen to their conversation: one said, ‘See how those mortals down there scurry about, racing – where? And worrying all the time.’ The companion bird replied: ‘Don’t they know they have a Heavenly Father?’ These simple people caught the point and gave their sound of approval.”
As I grew to know Sister Benigna, and as I have learned more about her missionary life, I recall Mother Mary Joseph’s words, “This vocation of ours is a precious, priceless gift freely given us by God… and we should be definitely marked by it so that no one may take us for anything but missioners.”
Let us thank God for the life of this missioner, we are privileged to call our sister.
Our sympathy and prayer go to Sister’s family and friends in Maryknoll and around the world.
We welcome as celebrants of the Eucharist this morning, Maryknoll Father Francis J. Winslow, an old family friend, and Father Edward J. Muha, Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Terryville, Connecticut.