Sister M. Isabel Garvey, MM

Born: November 29, 1889
Entered: April 30, 1924
Died: June 3, 1983

We come together in this season of Pentecost to celebrate the entrance into fullness of life of our Sister M. Isabel Garvey. Sister had been ill for the past month and slipped away quietly and peacefully at Maryknoll Nursing Home on Friday evening, June 3rd, having completed a full life that encompassed more than 94 years.

Those who knew Sister Isabel over the years, and were privileged to share life and mission with her, all speak of her in the same way: They recall her great—hearted generosity and the way that this spirit permeated her life whether in the use of her skills as a nurse, her gifts as teacher and mission educator and, throughout these later years, when she willingly received from others. No one who knew Sister Isabel fails to mention her marvelous sense of humor which never left her.

Ellen Josephine Garvey was born on November 29, 1888 in Buffalo, New York, one of five children born to Elizabeth Renard and John Garvey. After graduating from the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, Ellen received her RN from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was much respected in the field of Public Health nursing by the time she entered Maryknoll in 1924. At her formal Reception later that same year she received her religious name “Mary Isabel”, and on December 8, 1926 she made her First Profession of Vows. Sister Isabel was missioned to Los Angeles in 1927, and one year later to Maui Children’s Home in Hawaii. In 1929 she was assigned to the Philippines and made her Final Vows there on December 8, 1930.

For the next quarter century Sister Isabel remained in the Philippines engaged in a variety of ministries which called forth her many gifts. The bonds she formed during her life are witness to the depth of her commitment to Christ and the call of discipleship and mission. Sister Isabel is well—loved and remembered for her faithful service at St. Paul’s Hospital in Manila, and later in Baguio. At the outbreak of World War II, she was interned with other Maryknoll Sisters, and of those years Mother Mary Coleman recalls: “Sister Isabel was a very efficient, kind nurse, the quintessence of generosity, ever ready to help anyone in need. Her ability to comfort and assist the dying was phenomenal. To share such an occasion was an unforgettable spiritual experience.”

“Sister Isabel contributed in many ways to our life as internees. Enroute to our first place of internment, I happened to be near her in a crowded van with our omnipresent guard, who could speak a little English. His enquiries, addressed to all of us, – most of whom were too frightened to respond – were ably fielded by Sister Isabel. When he started out with, ‘American soldiers are no good! They do not fight. What do you think?’ Sister Isabel calmly replied, ‘I have never seen a battle, so I cannot make a judgment.’ Her response to his question, ‘Do you nuns pray that the American-Filipino Army will win this war?’, was, ‘No, we pray that the whole world may have peace, and that God’s will my prevail.'”

“Sister Isabel had great courage. Someone had given her a shortwave radio which managed to keep hidden for a long time, despite the fact that our captors rated such a possession as a serious offence. She used it with great discretion, and her occasional reports of what was really happening in the world beyond our barbed wire existence did much to bolster our morale, and keep alive a spark of hope for eventual liberation.” Finally, Mother Coleman recalls:

“Her sense of humor was unfailing and contagious. She especially delighted in recounting her own foibles and laughing at them. Sister Isabel’s interests, thoughtfulness, and kindness had no limits. They encompassed friend and foe, alike – everyone whose life touched hers.”

In 1953, Sister Isabel returned to the U.S. and was assigned to Promotion. Her fame as a promoter was legendary. She had a great capacity for remembering names; she had a way with Pastors which, together with her good sense of humor and ingenious way of telling stories, served as an entree for Maryknoll Sisters in numerous parishes and schools. The generosity with which Sister Isabel devoted herself to this important work was characteristic of her total dedication to mission. When, in her 80s, Sister Isabel went to live at Bethany, she continued to be an active and cheerful member of the Community.

In the past few months before her death, Sister Isabel’s life hung precariously in the balance; yet her joyful spirit seemed to sustain her.

Earlier this year, Sister Rose Marie 0’Callahan received a letter from a priest friend of Sister Isabel’s which spoke eloquently of her influence. The priest expressed his appreciation for Sister Rose Marie’s care of Sister Isabel recalling how Sister Isabel had cared for him as a patient in a Manila Hospital many years ago. He wrote, “Her care for me left an indelible mark of sisterly love on my heart. What an inspiration she was! That God designs for her to have this long, painful take-off is surely because he wants her to leave us – as He has always granted us the grace to have her with us – lovingly suffering for us – actively or passively.”

As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, may we each allow ourselves to be nourished and strengthened by the memory of this pioneer Maryknoller with whom we shared life and fidelity to mission.

We wish to extend our sympathy and prayer to Sister Isabel’s family
and friends in Maryknoll and around the world. Two of her nephews, Fathers John Garvey and Vincent Ryan of the Jesuit Order, will concelebrate the Liturgy together with Father Forbes Monaghan, S.J., and Maryknoll Father Robert Sheridan.