Sunday, 19 May 2013 15:06
Lent will forever hold a special memory for me since the tragic incident that Ash Wednesday long ago. It was a death that was unexpected and upsetting, yet in a singular way illustrates the meaning of those ancient words: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Sister Ann Leo, O.P., was a brilliant woman, yet very unassuming. In a way that was characteristically hers, she gave of her musical genius to a generation of Gloucester Catholic High School students. Her patience and her humble dedication to the annual play distracted most observers from her stature.
I used to think, “I wonder how many of your students know the real genius that is yours. Your skill as a violinist and pianist. Do they know that you performed once at Carnegie Hall? Or that your doctorate in music was won at great cost in Berlin before the last Great War?”
No matter. Sister had known the accolades of the crowds and knew her happiest moments, even amid the pressures of curtain deadlines, would be spent in simple giving.
Sister Ann Leo’s background is indeed interesting. A native of the Midwest, she was not a Catholic when she launched a musical career. Her success as a European student was heralded by the now dubious distinction that she was chosen in the 1930s to be a violin soloist in a special concert for Hitler. She never spoke of such background accomplishments.
Returning to America, she allowed her scientific interests and abilities to dominate her career and was hired by the government to work on the famed Manhattan Project. After the war, she turned to teaching, and spent 10 years in the New York public school system.
While she was a teacher in New York, she heard a Dominican priest give a retreat and was attracted to the Catholic faith. After her conversion, she responded to the mystery which is part of every vocation and journeyed off to the Dominicans in Newburgh, N.Y., where as a middle-aged woman she entered the convent.
Sister Ann Leo’s first and only assignment was at St. Mary’s Convent in Gloucester. They were happy years.
I can still remember the first time I met her back in 1976. I had just been appointed principal and had heard briefly of her background and her contributions to Gloucester Catholic.
Sister often spent summers in the South teaching English grammar to the poor. Returning from one such visit, she was walking from the post office to the convent when I gave her a ride. Instantly, I appreciated her jovial disposition.
Although Sister was brilliant in her own right, like all of us she had her foibles. She was often oblivious to timing. And her writing was impossible to translate, at least to me.
Each morning, just seconds before announcements, I could count on her engaging me in conversation over a problem which would obviously require more than a superficial treatment. We usually did this as I made a desperate attempt to preview what I would be soon saying publicly to the whole school.
Although I often offered my time to talk later, she never seemed to realize the problem of these transactions. In a strange way, these aspects of her personality added color to my appreciation what she was to us.
Then the fateful day arrived. Other than the somber feeling of the new season of Lent, the day began quite normally. I said Mass for the sisters and remember noticing a special happiness on Sister Ann Leo’s face as I shared the Eucharist with her. Placing ashes on her forehead, I never realized how prophetic those words and symbol would be for her.
We had arranged a special Ash Wednesday liturgy for the students at the beginning of the school day. As I called the different levels to the gym for the service, I was aware that Sister was standing close behind me. On that occasion, however, she said nothing.
The student body was fully assembled when I passed the word along to begin the procession. I had just taken my first step when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sister apparently trip out of the bleachers. Since I was only a matter of feet from her, I rushed to her side.
It soon became evident to all of us who then tried to help that her situation was critical. In the minutes that followed, the entire school witnessed a Lenten lesson they will never forget. Administering the sacrament of the sick while teachers applied CPR, I felt stunned.
We never had our service that morning. While the ambulance came, the students were sent back to their homerooms. Their silence was a tribute of respect for a woman they knew cared for them.
After Dr. Kelly called to tell me of Sister’s fatal heart attack, I informed the sisters privately of the sad news. Next, I shared the fact of her death with the students she had always loved. All of us were left traumatized and a void suddenly entered our hearts.
School was dismissed for the rest of the day. Later that afternoon I took a drive in the country and thought back over the hours we had worked together.
I thought of her chorus and the outstanding concert she had given in St. Mary’s Church the previous December. I thought back to “Camelot” and “Birdie” and some of the memories associated with these plays.
On a day of special symbolism, it suddenly dawned on me that she had spent her last minutes on earth in the very gym where she had toiled for well over a decade.
Later, when it was easier to think of what had occurred with less pain, I smiled at the dramatic grand entrance she must have had as she met her Maker. The day, her smile, the sacraments received, the kids all present, and in the gym she loved — it was all too coincidental.
Oh, it was the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd all over again in a special way. For a very special religious woman had just had her opening night in heaven.