Every August I celebrate an anniversary of a day that changed church forever for me. It happened this way:
I had taken a bus from Saint Louis to Tucson (it seemed like a good idea at the time) to visit my parents, retired there from Syracuse. I arrived in the terminal very early in the morning, tired after three days on the bus and greatly in need of a shower. It was too early to take a city bus to my parents’ apartment so I got a cup of coffee and sat relaxing in the snack bar. I was looking forward to seeing my parents and several of our sisters who lived and ministered in the Tucson area.
I was suddenly stunned to hear a radio newsbreak — two of our sisters had been killed in a car accident the night before. They had been brought to the emergency room in Tucson, but their injuries were too serious and neither survived.
Now these two sisters, Clare Dunn and Judy Lovchik, were special. They were very active in Arizona state politics, working tirelessly for the poor, the undocumented, the newly-arrived from Mexico, the unemployed. One writer had called them “the conscience of the Senate,” so strongly did they protest injustice and work to create opportunities for the poor. I knew them well.
Shock and sadness and simple tiredness all came together, and I sobbed. I don’t mean a few tears; I lost it and sat there unable to stop.
The other people in the bus station — the ones without wheels, the folks you know you’ll find in a bus station at 5 a.m. — came over to see what was wrong. “What is it?” they said. I could only point to the radio. “Those are my sisters,” I finally got out. “I’m a Sister of Saint Joseph.”
Then it happened. The people in the bus station began to pray. Several took out their rosaries and prayed in Spanish. They brought me food — orange juice, tortillas, coffee. They talked about Clare and Judy. They knew them well; they were, after all, Clare’s and Judy’s constituents. They cared for me, mourned with me, listened to me. They became Church, telling the stories and saying the words and breaking the bread. They reached into their hearts, named Jesus there and became Church. And that Church cared for me, blessed me.
Several things about that experience have stayed with me. One was my own weakness. I was not my usual competent self; I was powerless. The strength of the wider community supported me. Another was the realization that these folks in the bus terminal, the ones we sometimes call “the poor,” were profoundly rich in their faith and in their conviction that this was a moment for prayer.
Finally, I reflect on the mystery of God’s Spirit, which moved this little group to gather, break bread and be among the first of the many praying communities who commended Clare and Judy to God’s eternal love. I realized then, as I have realized just about every day since then, that Jesus’ promise to be with us for all time was — and is — a literal statement.
While at Notre Dame, Sister Hanley studied under her religious name of Sister Sara William Hanley.