"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great Imperial family. God help me to keep my vow," said Queen Elizabeth II on her first official state visit so many years ago. This week, 2000 people filled Westminster Abbey in London to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her coronation June 2, 1953.
A week ago, in East Dubuque, Illinois, population a little less than 2000, Sr. Mary Owen Haggerty was remembered for her years of faithful service. Born in 1927, just a year after Queen Elizabeth, the Sister also served for some sixty years, as part of the Dominican Order of Sinsinawa, WI, within sight of East Dubuque. Hundreds gathered to share memories the night before her funeral, not just nuns, but nieces and nephews and all sorts of people from the Tri-States of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin and as far away as Colorado and Connecticut.
Queen Elizabeth served the Commonwealth. Sister Mary Owen served the common health. The Queen has served faithfully, consistently, responsibly, day after day, year after year, with modest warmth and wisdom. So did the Sister. And the world changed around them both.
Sister Mary Owen took her vows before Vatican II. Her church, her religious order, its form of governance, her garb all changed. But her arenas of service only grew. About 25 years ago, in her early 60’s, while attending a Rural Ministry Conference here at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Sr. Mary Owen approached Pastor Burton Everist of Grace Lutheran Church in East Dubuque and asked him if she could be his parish health nurse. She writes in the book Ordinary Ministry: Extraordinary Challenge, (Everist, Abingdon, 2000) that she had offered her services two different times to Roman Catholic churches in the area. “I thought I was making them an offer they couldn’t afford to pass up, but they did.”
Pastor Burton Everist did accept and she was called to be parish health minister at Grace Lutheran, where she served for many years. Three years later Wesley Methodist Church in East Dubuque invited her to be their parish health minister, too. She visited people in the hospital, health care facilities and in their homes, providing consultation, support, a listening ear, care, friendship, prayer, and often a piece of Sinsinawa home-made pie. The Lutherans and Methodists would ask if she would stop by and see their Roman Catholic friends (the majority faith group in the area), and so Sister became the de facto parish health minister for all of East Dubuque. She wrote that she sometimes served as "'minister-in-the-cracks' to those people who are between churches, because I have become acquainted with them in their time of need."
Sister Mary Owen had at one time been nursing director at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, Illinois, had served with Hospice of Spokane, Spokane, Washington, and loved her frequent trips to offer health care in Jamaica.
And across the river in Dubuque, Iowa? Here, too, the sister simply served—bread. One saw her every Saturday morning at the Dubuque Farmers’ Market, (in continuing existence since 1836), selling Sinsinawa bread, and simply talking with people. One might see her when the market opened in the spring asking an elderly man how he was doing, and then taking him aside to talk when he told her his wife had died during the winter. And so she served, day by day, faithfully into her 86th year. The card with her picture each of us held as we told stories in the Gathering Room at Sinsinawa quoted Meister Eckart, OP: “There’s no such thing as my bread; all bread is ours, and is given through me and to me through others.”
Common health of a community. A Commonwealth of nations. Of course one cannot push the comparison too far. But I keep seeing the common faces of these two women and that strengthens me because of what they have “in common,” a deep, faithful commitment to service.
I know, Elizabeth II is no commoner, but she does now pay taxes like any other British citizen. She took her vow: “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep,” before many British colonies became independent nations. Her nation, the constitutional monarchy, her church, her garb, her arenas of service have changed, and, if one thinks of power in terms of well-being, I think her service has grown.
People ask, “Can women have it all?” That is an imposed question which seems to fit neither the queen nor the nun. I think rather the question should be, “Do we have a call?” And that’s a question for me, too.Perhaps these two women touch me in particular because June 5, 1960, 53 years ago this week, I was consecrated as a Lutheran deaconess, vowing a life of faith and service to Christ. Across these decades my life, too, has changed beyond imagining. Marriage and ministry now possible together. Ordination. Becoming a pastor and then a professor and writer. But the commitment to faith and service remains the same, just with broader arenas.
The Queen and the nun: Service, commitment. In each of their lives and ours there are pressures and challenges, suffering, and joy, all of it, yes, all of it. The calling takes us further and further out into the world, whether across oceans or the Mississippi River, to reach out across borders and boundaries and to be drawn close by those we love.