Sister Mary Eunice Tolan, MM

Born: March 11, 1890
Entered: September 24, 1923
Died: April 14, 1981

On April 14th, 1981 at 12:15 a.m., Sister Mary Eunice Tolan slipped quietly away to be with God. We are gathered together today to celebrate her unique life and to remember and rejoice in the many gifts she gave to Maryknoll and to the Church. How appropriate that her own passing over to the Father should occur during Holy Week, when, in the context of our remembering in a special way the death and resurrection of Jesus, we remember with love and rejoice over Sister Eunice’s many, many years in mission.

Anna Gertrude Tolan was born a twin on March 11, 1890 in Woburn, Mass. She was one of twelve children that included two sets of twins born to James and Eunice Tolan. Her twin brother died when he was three years old. Anna went to schools near home and graduated in 1906 from Burdett Business College in Boston. She then worked as a secretary with various companies. In 1918 she joined the U.S. Navy as a Yeoman First-Class and worked in the Purchasing Department in the District Supply Office in Boston, becoming Chief Yeoman and supervisor of the office after six months. From 1919 till her entrance into Maryknoll, in 1923, she worked in the Direct Mail Office of the Union Paste Company – an experience which served her well in organizing our own Promotion Department. On January 31, 1924 she wrote in some detail of her work in that office and ends by saying: “Shall I apologize for the needless detail into which I have gone in regard to my work? If so, my only explanation is that the greater part of my life has been spent in the business world doing work which I enjoyed and about which I seem to like to talk.”

On September 24, 1923, Anna Tolan joined Maryknoll. She took the name “Sister Mary Eunice”, the name of her mother, at Reception on April 19, 1924. She made her first profession of vows on April 30, 1926 and pronounced her final vows three years later in 1929. Sister Eunice’s leadership qualities were immediately recognized and before her final vows she was a member of the General Council replacing Sister M. St. John Brown who had died. She resigned from the Council in 1929 when she was assigned to Manchuria as Superior of the first group to go to Dairen.

Sisters Eunice and Paul traveled with Mother Mary Joseph to China via Europe where they stopped to see Pope Pius XI. They passed through Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and finally Hong Kong. Mother stopped in Hong Kong and Sisters Eunice and Juliana went on, arriving in Dairen on March 18, 1930. They were followed the next day by Sisters Angelica and Coronata coming from Korea, and on March 20th by Sister Gemma, who arrived from Japan. The 5 settled in quickly, and prepared for Mother Mary Joseph’s first visit a few weeks later. Mother and Sisters Columba and Theodore came on April 29, 1930. The five missioners thought they’d have long leisurely chats with their visitors, but as it turned out, Mother Mary Joseph saw their unfinished furniture and decided it would be wise to put all the extra hands to work painting. So they all plunged into painting the furniture and on the last day had a wonderful picnic.

Sister Eunice later wrote: “We sat on the rocks all day and enjoyed the sea view and breezes. Sister Juliana stopped playing her uke only while we ate lunch; and the rest of us stopped singing only for the same purpose. What a day! There was never such another.”

More Sisters came the next year and Sister Eunice headed a group that began a new mission in Fushun in 1931. They were: Sisters Gloria, Veronica Marie, de Lellis and Eunice. Besides language study, the Sisters worked in a variety of apostolates which included novitiate training for a new Community (that would eventually become the Sacred Heart Sisters), running an orphanage and school, a catechumenate, and a dispensary, as well as making home visits.

These were days Sister Eunice always treasured. She called them the “halcyon days”. All was not tranquil, however, as bandits roamed the countryside. From Fushun, Sister Eunice wrote to Mother Mary Joseph on September 23, 1936: “All seem to think that after the high grain has been cut, that the ‘gentlemen’ will leave these parts for points farther north where they usually winter. At present the Robin Hoods are fine-tooth combing the villages of this section taking all the winter clothing and bedding they can lay their hands on. Just today some refugees came in from one of the villages. They reported that at 6:00 yesterday afternoon, the bandits came in, killed four, took twenty away with them and also cleaned the village of bedding and winter clothing. Most of the villagers have left their homes and come into the city. Poor people… maybe some day things will be brighter for them.”

But Sister Eunice was not able to stay and see any of the brighter or darker days that were to come to Manchuria and to the Chinese people she loved so much, as she came back to Maryknoll for the Chapter in 1937 and was elected Second Councilor at that time. She served as Councilor for more than 20 years first from 1937 to 1946; then she was re-elected from 1946 to 1952; and again in 1958 to 1964. In the meantime, she also developed the entire Promotion Department and had the main responsibility of planning how to support the work of our Congregation during the years of its expansion. From 1937 to 1969 she was Director of Promotion. These were the years following the crash of Wall Street and later the years of World War II. We grew in size from around 400 in 1937 to over 1400 in 1968. With the assistance of Sister Victoria Francis and later Sister Maria del Rey, she set up a Publicity Department for she early saw the value of communications for the sending Church.

Sister Eunice has also left us a remarkable historical treasure. During her busiest years, with the help of Sister Incarnata, she managed to write the history of our missions in Manchuria, and after she was 80 she continued to work on our history producing the Distaff volumes now in our Library which trace Maryknoll History from 1912 to 1961.

Sister Eunice was a remarkable woman, a woman of courage, vision, strength, humor and above all, vitality. Your hearts are full of special memories of her today. I would like to share just a word on two elements in Sister Eunice’s life that spoke very deeply to me; one is friendship and the other is memory. I never saw Sister Eunice without Sister Incarnata except once last week, and that one time seemed very strange to me. I remember Sister Incarnata reading to Sister Eunice in the spring under a tree on the front lawn and that picture speaks of the life that God gives us through our friends. Their friendship was a beautiful gift which they gave generously to each other and which enriched all of us. The other element is memory. No one had such a phenomenal memory as Sister Eunice! In remembering we grow in our understanding of ourselves and of how God has worked in our lives. In many ways Sister Eunice was, herself, a vital part of our group memory spanning so many years of our history as she did.

Today, at the Eucharist we celebrate in friendship and in memory the gift of our salvation. Jesus Christ, who laid down His life for His friends, asked us to do the same in His memory. And so, today, we ask for that grace and we celebrate with joy the memory of our Sister Eunice whose long life was full of His love.

The celebrants of the Eucharistic Liturgy are Maryknollers: Bishop Edward A. McGurkin, Bishop John W. Comber, assisted by Fathers Robert E. Sheridan, Norbert J. Rans, John Kelly Walsh, Francis E. Mullen, Sylvio R. Gilbert and Alan J. Ryan. Bishop James E. Walsh also joined us for the celebration as did Maryknoll Fathers Francis J. Winslow, John F. Harrington and Daniel P. Driscoll.

We are happy to welcome the many relatives and friends of Sister Eunice, some of whom have come from a distance, to participate in this celebration of a life most dear to all of us.