Sister M. Fachtna Donovan, MM

Born: October 12, 1891
Entered: June 4, 1922
Died: May 31, 1986

Today we gather to celebrate the Liturgy of the Resurrection for our Sister Mary Fachtna Donovan, who quietly entered Eternal Life on Saturday evening (May 31st) in the Maryknoll Nursing Home.

Ireland was desperately struggling for life after the devastating effects of the potato famines and political unrest when Timothy Donovan and Anne Sullivan married and set out to rear a large family in Ross, County Cork. Those were hard times, but the family was all the closer for that. Hannah Teresa was born October 12, 1891, and she was still quite young when she took on a share of the work around the house. Her sense of responsibility and energetic efficiency were natural traits that characterized her throughout life and made demanding tasks easier. These qualities, tempered by a friendly, outgoing manner, made Hannah a welcome addition to any group.

After graduation from grade school, Hannah’s quick intelligence prompted her parents to enroll her in high school, but she had to leave after six months and go to work. Applying herself to sewing and domestic service for several years enabled her to bring in needed funds to the family. Other contributions were not measurable in money. Hannah often entertained the family with recitations from Shakespeare and the English poets, interspersed with animated tales constructed from life’s ordinary experiences. She always had a story. Then, at 21, Hannah made her decision to emigrate to the United States. In Massachusetts she got employment taking care of children, sewing and doing household chores or “chamber work” as it was called in those days. These skills would prove valuable for many later on. Hannah returned to Ireland in 1920 for a year, during which time her mother died. Once again in the U.S., Hannah, now 30 years old, was encouraged by her parish priest to follow her dream and apply to the fledgling group of woman dedicated to the work of the missions. Seven months later, Hannah arrived on Mary’s Knoll with scant luggage, a beguiling brogue and a generous dedication that was outstanding during all her 64 years as a member of the Congregation.

At Reception she received the name “Sister Mary Fachtna”. Nine years were spent working in the Seminary kitchen, The Field Afar magazine offices and in the laundry. Sister Fachtna was a hard worker and her thoroughness put her into positions of responsibility early on. The novices under her direction in the laundry, also trying to be thorough and make good use of their time, would bring in their text books about the vows and put them on the end of their ironing boards so they could study and work at the same time. On one occasion someone got distracted and the smell of burning material permeated the room. Sister Mary Fachtna strode down the aisle and exclaimed, “Glory be to God, here we are studying about the vow of poverty and burning up the collars and cuffs!”

Five years after making her final vows in 1927, Sister Fachtna was assigned to the Japanese Mission in Los Angeles, California. There, at the Maryknoll Home for Children on Boyle Street, all of her qualities and skills were called forth as substitute mother for youngsters who were orphaned or from broken homes. These were special years for Sister Fachtna and for the boys under her care. Kind and concerned, but also exacting, Sister helped create an atmosphere of stability, homeyness, discipline and affectionate support. The older boys knew they couldn’t put anything over on her, but they also knew they had a staunch friend in times of trouble. No one escaped his turn doing pots and pans and no one was forgotten when special goodies were passed out or pocket money was available for the movies. The younger set presented other challenges, like turning over their uneaten meals on top of their heads, ringing the chapel bell for fun and coming down with the usual childhood illnesses. For some, Sister Fachtna was the only mother they ever knew. Health problems limited Sister to a degree, but she was still a match for any eventuality.

When the U.S. went to war with Japan, and the Executive Order mandated internment of the Japanese in 1942, the children were also put into the camps. This heart-wrenching separation was felt deeply on both sides. But Sister Fachtna never forgot or lost touch with “her boys” and they always cherished their memories of her and what she had taught them.

Assigned back to New York in 1945, Sister was asked to do a particularly exacting work in the Administration Offices of the Maryknoll Magazine and Seminary which she handled superbly for 10 years. Then in 1955 she was transferred to the Sisters’ Promotion Office.

One of Sister Fachtna’s “boys” wrote to Mother Mary Colman in 1966 proposing a surprise visit to Los Angeles. He said a group of them would chip in to cover the airfare if Sister were given permission to go. Mother Colman wrote back saying she “felt quite sure she could get someone to cover Sister’s duties if she were to go to California for a visit.” It would seem that Sister Fachtna was still working hard at 75. Later, a letter described the wonderful get-together: “She is still beaming with happiness over it all… (we are) hearing her glowing account of friendships renewed, of places revisited, and experiences shared with friends she holds most dear.”

Failing health made it necessary to transfer Sister Fachtna to Bethany house for long term care in 1978 and then to the Maryknoll Nursing Home later. With her winning smile and Irish wit, she endeared herself to the staff who cared for her with gentleness and skill until she returned to her loving, ever-faithful God.

We extend our condolences to Sister Fachtna’s family and friends in Ireland, Canada and the U.S.

We welcome Maryknoll Father Edward Manning who will lead us in our Eucharistic Celebration and all this Family of God gathered to remember and give thanks for the dedicated life and mission of our Sister Mary Fachtna Donovan.