Sister Mary Heath, MM

Born: June 24, 1922
Entered: September 7, 1943
Died: October 6, 2009

“With you I will establish my Covenant…” Genesis 6:18

Sister Mary Heath chose this quotation for her celebration of commitment, a text which was one of Mother Mary Joseph’s favorites. Today Mother receives her daughter again, this time into the heavenly family of Maryknollers, all faithful their covenant. Mary died peacefully at the Maryknoll Sisters Residential Care Facility on October 6, 2009. She was 87 years of age and had been a Maryknoll Sister for 54 years.

Mary Leslie Heath was born June 24, 1922 to Leslie and Eva I (Stapleton) Heath in Medford, Massachusetts. She had three brothers, Dominican Fathers Walter, Mark and Thomas and one sister, Leslie.

A graduate of St. Joseph High School in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1939 and Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts in 1943 with a BS in Home Economics. Mary was ready to enter Maryknoll in September, 1943 from St. Joseph’s Parish, Somerville, in the Diocese of Boston. She received the religious name of Sister Maria Crucis, making her First Profession on March 7, 1946 at Maryknoll and her Final Profession on the same day in 1949 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Mary attended Catholic University of America receiving her M.S. in Social Work in 1948. That same year she was assigned to Hawaii where she did Family Case Work for the Catholic Social Service Agency for nine years. She served as Co-Chair of the Case Work-Group Work Coordinating Committee of the Honolulu Council of Social Agencies, the first Sister to hold a leadership position in that organization. Her calm, efficient and careful manner endeared her to the social work community. Her gentle, positive and thoughtful personality made her a welcome member of the St. Catherine Convent community where she lived with more than a dozen other MSWs working at Catholic Charities.

In 1957 she was assigned to Hong Kong where she spent the next fifteen years. While studying Cantonese, living in Kowloontong, she responded to the needs of the refugee population at the King’s Park Resettlement Refugee Centre and later assisted in the founding of Caritas-Hong Kong. She helped to train social workers, devise standards for professional social work and assisted local colleges to formulate training programs appropriate for the needs of the people. The work was both demanding and rewarding but caused some conflict with the agency leadership because it was so far ahead of its time.

During her years in Hong Kong she served on the Advisory Committee to the Governor on Social Work Training for Hong Kong, became the Professional Assistant to the Director of Caritas-Hong Kong, was Executive Secretary of the First Caritas Asian Seminar, responsible for the publication of its proceedings and served as Chair for two terms of the Hong Kong Social Workers Association. In addition she served on the Board of Directors for both Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital and the Yang Methodist Social Center.

In 1972 Mary returned to the United States and decided to leave the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation. She took refresher courses at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work followed by specialized training for work with adolescent drug abusers at the Institute for Existential Therapy in New York City. In 1973 she began her residence in the city and was licensed in the State of New York.

For eleven years Mary continued her professional social work which followed an amazing ecumenical path. Her first employment was with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church as a Neighborhood Worker, a catch-all phrase covering referrals, needs assessment and volunteer training and scheduling. A member of the church referred her to Dr. Albert Siewers, a psychoanalyst in private practice who was also director of Girls Town. Mary transferred to the Florence Crittenton League as the supervisor of Barrett House, the primary agency of Girls Town where Mary was responsible for the twenty adolescent girls in residence. As she developed the therapeutic community milieu for the house and supervised the social workers in attendance, she was observed by one of Dr. Siewers colleagues and was lured to an employment with the Jewish Child Care Association which lasted for seven years. This migration of jobs came because each position was a stepping stone in this path that was enhanced by her evening courses at the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. When she finished her three year program with a diploma in June 1981, she continued her work at the Jewish site and opened her own private practice, continuing with contacts she had made earlier. Her referrals were always through colleagues which meant she never had the need to advertise her work. During this time her initial connections with the community at the Episcopal Holy Trinity church grew and she became an active member of the congregation.

Another migration occurred during the Christmas season of 1983. In a sequence of events she later described as ‘absolutely amazing,’ she walked three extra blocks from the Holy Trinity Parish to a Catholic church where the sermon seemed tailor made by the Holy Spirit. That week she called the Maryknoll Center and began the process that welcomed her back into the Maryknoll Sisters Community. In August, 1985 Mary made her Profession of Vows. Reassigned to Hawaii in 1986 she made her Final Vows in August 1988.

As the Coordinator of Project Rachel, a post-abortion reconciliation program sponsored by the Diocesan Respect Life Office, Mary trained the counselors to serve not only the women but also other family members as well as the medical professionals who had been part of the woman’s decision. The protocols which she developed are still in use today.

In 1991 Mary retired and, for two years, became a volunteer for Hospice Hawaii, Inc., an independent non-denominational agency. In 1994 she was assigned to the Maryknoll Center where she resided until 2003 when she was transferred to the Maryknoll Residential Care Facility due to failing health. At this time she took Albania as her Prayer Ministry.

These last years had not diminished her ability to laugh at herself, her gentle humor, her self-effacing manner, all of which highlighted her great listening skills. In the material assembled over the years she made little reference to herself but honored the professional work she was able to do. Always grateful for the opportunities she had for education, she deflected any observations that would highlight her superior abilities. Humility was the coin of her realm and humor was its manifestation.

We welcome with us today, Mary’s family and friends. We also welcome three Dominican priest brothers who, with our Maryknoll brother, Father Jack Casey, MM, will concelebrate at the Mass of Christian Burial.