Sister M. Philomena Flanagan, MM
Born: May 1, 1891
Entered: August 14, 1918
Died: October 29, 1949
Today we are gathered here to bid Godspeed to a beloved Sister; to entrust her saintly soul to the Angels to escort her to her perfect life in Heaven with God for which she prepared so faithfully while she was still among us. Today, not only our Sisters, but all Maryknollers are bereaved, because Sister Pilomena’s life was devoted to the service of her Maryknoll priests, brothers and students, and her last day of active labor on this earth was in the kitchen of the Seminary.
Saint John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, patron of all parish priests, had a most special devotion to a little saint called Saint Philomena. He had first come to know her through Pauline Jaricot, the foundress of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Some people may object that too little is known about Saint Philomena, and there is little scientific testimony to support what is said and believed of her. That doesn’t concern us. We know that the Curé d’Ars venerated Saint Philomena as a very special friend and attributed all his miracles to her. We know that what most appealed to him was her perfect example of his ideal of obscurity. For nothing is known of her, nothing of her life on earth: only her manner of leaving it. He had said: “It is our duty to become saints, but let nobody know it. Saint Philomena points the way.” This is the keynote to anything we may say about our own sister Philomena. What her heavenly Patroness was to the Patron of all priests, Sister Philomena was to her Maryknoll priests and students. In a letter she wrote from the infirmary two years ago, she said: “I left a piece of my heart in the Seminary kitchen.”
Sister Philomena was born in Balliamore County Leitrim, Ireland. She came to America and lived for a time in New York. She entered Maryknoll on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, thirty-one years ago. The Feast of the Holy Cross is significant as the beginning of Sisters’ service of God and of His priests, for all the following years were filled with hard work and suffering. Twenty-two years ago, just before undergoing an operation, she wrote to Mother Mary Joseph: “There is a time in all our lives when the good God in His infinite wisdom calls each one of us to suffer, and this time it is my turn… I assure you of my poor prayers and sufferings, and I will ask the Divine King to supply for you, all you would like to do for Him…”
Except for a few years at Los Angeles and a year at Bethany, Sister’s whole religious life was spent at the Venard and the Seminary. Only after sickness finally kept her in the infirmary did the one hundred and one little things come to light, which she had been doing quietly and unnoticed during her daily round of work. Without a word to anyone, never waiting to be told, she had taken care of countless little details about the kitchen refectories which escape the notice of everyone except the Superior. Later, as each of these little jobs, now left undone, came to the Superior’s attention, Sister Philomena’s absence was ever more felt. Hers was the apostolate of little things. As she wrote from the infirmary: “I am doing little things now, later bigger things…”
Over two years ago, Sister was told that she had only a few months to live. She wrote to her Mother Superior that when she received this news she was never in her life so happy. “Not at Profession,” she said, “nor at Final Profession, nor even on my Silver Jubilee was I so happy – happy to know I will soon be leaving for ‘Home.'” Her docility and obedience were always a comfort to her superiors.
Sister was very fond of these words taken from one of her favorite spiritual books: “On earth we have no abiding place, because Heaven is our true Fatherland, our ‘Home Sweet Home.’ The good God awaits us there, who is our Father, and whose tender love infinitely surpasses that of all mothers together. There Mary waits for us, enfolding Heaven and earth, in the incomparable sweetness of her glance and in the tenderness of her most loving heart. There all the dear ones whom death has torn away from our sides are waiting, too. There we shall enjoy again and forever the sweet affections of holy friendships born on earth. In truth, Heaven is our home and Fatherland…”
Sister Philomena passed away just as the bell in the Seminary tower was about to ring the noonday Angelus. It is hardly a coincidence that our devoted Sister, whom the boys working in the kitchen used to call Saint Philomena should fly away to Heaven amid the ringing of the Angelus bell. It is hardly a coincidence that the Ancilla Domini who tried so hard to imitate Our Lady of Maryknoll should be taken to Heaven on our Blessed Mother’s Saturday. Nor is it a coincidence that the devoted servant of the King of Kings, who wrote that she would intercede with the Divine King on our behalf, should be summoned before this King while so many of His priests (and her priests!) were reciting the Vespers of Christ the King. And yesterday as we ascended the altar to wear black vestments. Her first Masses were celebrated in white, with Gloria and Credo, on an altar laden with candles and beautiful fragrant flowers betokening purity and love, and the joys of Heaven. And it was of Sister Philomena we thought at the preface and realized happily that now our poor sufferer was ‘Home’ for good with her Eternal High Priest and King of All Things, in His Kingdom of Truth and Life, Kingdom of Holiness and Grace, Kingdom of Justice, of Love and of Peace…
Pax Tecum Philomena! These words, quoted at the beginning, are found on a tomb which was unearthed in the Catacombs of Saint Priscilla, in Rome. “Philomena, Peace be with thee!” It is one of many similar inscriptions found in the cemeteries of underground Rome. In these inscriptions we seldom, if ever, come upon such words as “death” and “bury.” Rather, it is “rest in the Lord,” “rest in peace,” expressing the same thought that we sang today at Mass, namely, “for thy faithful, O Lord, life is not taken away – but changed!” Alongside of Philomena Pax Tecum, we read in the catacombs other such inscriptions as “Thy Spirit is in bliss, pray for thy parents,” “Timothea, may thy spirit rest well in God, pray for us…”
With the same spirit, we could perhaps address a similar entreaty to our Sister Philomena. At least, we can turn to her with this greeting while we await the happy day when we shall all meet again: “Philomena, Pax tecum! May the Angels lead thee into Paradise. May the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming. May the Choirs of the Angels receive thee, and mayest thou, with the once poor Lazarus, have rest everlasting.” Amen.