Eulogy for his sister, Mary Frances Rollins
[Scripture Readings: Prov 31:10-31; 1 Cor 15:50-58; Jn 14:1-6]
“Jesus is Lord, you better believe it!” By nature Mary Frances had a strong personality. She loved her Catholic faith and God with her whole heart, her whole mind, and all her strength. As she would say, “You better believe it!” When life was hard it was faith that gave her the inner strength to go on. And she expected, I would even say demanded, that others do the same.
So let us turn for a moment to our Christian faith for consolation and the hope we have of being reunited again. Among the Gospel stories, the raising of Lazarus is one of the most amazing. It can help us cope with our own losses. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. But why did Jesus weep when he knew that he was going to raise his friend to life? Why wasn’t he bursting with joy in anticipation of the great event about to take place? Because the hot tears that rolled down the face of Jesus were not only for Lazarus. They were tears shed for every one of us. He wept because of the sorrow death has caused from the beginning of time to the end of time. He wept because we are all his friends and he loves us, and he took our sorrows into his own heart.
There is a true story about a young, newly ordained priest who was called to a hospital emergency room. Four young teenagers from his parish were killed in a car accident. A police officer took the young priest aside and asked if he would please be the one to tell the parents? The priest was stunned, his face turned pale, and his heart started racing. Passing through the double doors of the emergency room he saw the anxious faces of the parents who turned to him for answers. His voice breaking, all he could say was, “I’m so sorry, no one survived.” Parents collapsed into chairs, crying and grieving in great agony. The priest also doubled over in pain and began sobbing with them. He couldn’t say anything else, he just wept. Two days later, at the wake, people looked at him and some pointed. He felt like such a failure. After the service several parents stopped him and said, “Father, would you conduct the funeral?” “Why?” he asked. Why did they want him when he had failed so badly at the hospital to offer them any consolation? Why did they want him? A mother replied, “Because when you wept with us, you showed that God was weeping with us, too.”
When the sisters of Lazarus came to Jesus seeking consolation in their hour of grief he promised them, “Your brother will rise again.” Just as Jesus wept for all of us, for all the pain we experience, so also his promise is made to each one of us. “Your dear sister, your brother, your father and mother, will rise again. Your loving spouse and companion of your youth will rise again. Your beautiful child whose tragic death is a sharp sword piercing your heart will rise again and be given back to you. Your friend will rise again. You yourself will rise again.” Mary Frances and Dan, Jean and Bruce, Dad and Mom, Johnny and all our relatives and friends will rise again.
The experience of loss came early to our family. In 1948 when Mom was dying of cancer she chose to stay at home rather than die in a hospital, because children under 12 were not permitted in a patient’s hospital room in those days. Mom did not want to be separated from any of her children. So the family took care of her at home. Francie, as we called her then, said, “It was a beautiful experience because she was in her own bed, in her own home, surrounded by her family. … I always had that image in my mind.” Hospice care was not yet available when Francie entered nursing school. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from Marquette, and did graduate work at Tulane and Oklahoma Universities.
In 1951, three years after Mom’s death, she married Jim Wendell. It was a difficult marriage right from the beginning. Over the next eleven years it got worse until it ended in a legal divorce. If Francie had not been such a strong woman it would have ended sooner, but she believed marriage was unto death, and at that time annulments declaring a marriage invalid were almost unheard of. She wanted her marriage to endure. Instead, everyone suffered. Finally, it was even beyond her strength, and it ended in a civil divorce.
Now Mary had to use her training as a nurse to earn a living. Within a couple years she became supervisor of Colonial Manor in 1965 with a salary of $6,000. Her skill and common sense led to better positions, first as superintendent of Northwestern General Hospital in 1966 with a salary of $8,000, and two years later as director of Three Fountains Nursing home with a salary of $13,000. She more than doubled her income in only three years. After our mother’s death in 1948, Dad entrusted Francie with administration of the family budget. That early training served her well. For the rest of her life she sought Dad’s guidance and good counsel in financial matters and in the management positions she was given. They always remained very close to each other. I don’t think she ever missed one of Dad’s birthdays.
A few years later, in 1968, she met Bruce Richards and fell in love with him and they were married. It was one of the hardest decisions Francie ever had to make because they were not yet free to marry in the Church. And for a woman who believed the Church teaches the truth, and you better believe it, not being able to receive the sacraments caused her tremendous interior anguish. Yet, she feared living alone, and she loved Bruce deeply. She had to wait ten years for the annulments that would allow her to receive the sacraments again, and restore her life in the Church.
As much as Francie loved Bruce, he did not have the gift of being as good a father or stepfather as he wished. This was especially hard for the kids. It was also one of Mary’s weaknesses that she wasn’t able to be as demonstrably affectionate a mother as she was a skilled manager of nursing homes and advocate defending the elderly. Everyone suffered when she could not keep the family together.
In December of 1970 the Richards moved to Mequon. It was the first really beautiful home Francie could afford to live in as an adult. Six months later she was offered a position as state inspector for nursing homes in Wisconsin. The state soon discovered it had hired a tiger or a lioness. She spent every ounce of her energy to protect the lives and well being of patients in the nursing homes she inspected. She exposed horrible abuses in patients’ care and documented the lack of enforcement by higher state officials. In spite of the forces that opposed her, she eventually became Director of the Special Enforcement Unit for the State of Wisconsin. Not even threats to her life deterred her from doing all she could to help make nursing homes safer places for care of the sick and the elderly. “You better believe it!”
In June of 1977 Bruce and Francie went to California for a vacation and they fell in love with San Diego. The following year they both received annulments of their previous marriages. It was such a joy for Francie to be able to receive the sacraments once again. Now the interior strength of her personality and the spiritual strength of her faith were united together. About this time her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to her guardian angel began emerge as hallmarks of her faith.
Then a new threat to her happiness was narrowly averted. Bruce nearly died of a heart attack. But heaven stepped aside for a while, and after having four bypasses Bruce converted to Catholicism and lived another nine years.
When Dad and our stepmother moved to San Diego in June of 1980, the Richards decided to follow them. They moved to San Diego the following October in a used Air Stream trailer that they were able to buy for a third of the price of a new one. Agreements were made to sell their house in Mequon for $131,000, and they began their cross-country journey. Later, the buyers defaulted on the purchase of the house in Mequon. The sale fell through. It was a crushing blow for Francie and Bruce. All their savings were tied up in that house. Dad lent them money to survive until they could find a new buyer. Francie wrote, “I could never repay Dad for all he’s been and done for me, if I lived to be 1000 years old. Dad is so kind and patient.” They found a small house in Rancho Bernardo, and Francie worked as a private nurse, caring for patients in their homes, while Bruce took up locksmith work. In January of 1982 she came down with a kidney infection and was hospitalized for eight days. She had never been so sick in her entire life. Another year went by without a buyer for their house. Finally, in March of 1983, it sold for $87,500, netting only $44,000 after paying commissions and taxes. Half of Francie’s life’s savings were lost in the sale. It was so hard. Recently that same house sold for almost a half-million dollars!
But we all know that she was a strong woman. She started over again in nursing and began volunteer work with Elizabeth Hospice. It was the first Hospice to open in San Diego County. And for the next twenty years she focused on geriatric nursing, especially caring for the elderly in their homes. She wrote, “You can’t be depressed when you feel that you’re doing something so physically and emotionally beneficial.”
Gradually Francie and Bruce eked out a living and they no longer depended on Dad for financial assistance. Then in June of 1985 Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a crushing blow for the whole family, but especially for Francie who was so close to him all her life. And as if that wasn’t enough of a trial, that summer their landlord decided to sell the house they were renting. They had to move twice in the next two years because they couldn’t afford to buy a home. Meanwhile, Bruce learned he had to obtain a contractor’s license to continue his locksmith business. He studied hard and it was a joyful day when he passed the exams and received his license. But their joy did not last long.
In 1988 Franice experienced a four-fold loss: Dad died on March 15th. An elderly woman Francie had been helping for many years died during Dad’s funeral. Then Bruce died two weeks later on April 5th of a massive heart attack. And Francie had to move to a much less expensive home shortly afterwards. She was left with the locksmith business and an unreliable hired man to do the work. She wrote: “The days are still so terribly hard to get through. It’s all I can do to get out of bed each morning and face another day. Yet I feel guilty because everyone has been so wonderful and helpful to me. Will I ever experience happiness again? I desperately need more strength to fight the depression I’m feeling. I guess it’s good to be so busy that I nearly collapse from exhaustion each night. I’m afraid of being rested and having time to think because grief sets in and I’m reduced to tears again. I wish so much I could find a prayer group here to join and share my faith.” Her granddaughter, Jennifer, stayed with her that summer to give comfort and support.
Some time after Francie suffered through the loss of Dad and Bruce and the patient she cared for, and her home and even her business she pulled herself together and started over again. It took all the inner strength of her personality and her faith to keep going after these terrible losses. It was at this time that she began using her first name, Mary. That’s how most know her today, but for all of us who grew up with her, she will always be Francie. I think she wanted to be called Mary as a sign of her deep love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God, and a sign of her resolve to begin life anew.
After Mary suffered these losses heaven heard her prayers and came to her aid in the person of Howard Rollins. Howard also lost the love of his life when his wife, Jean, died of cancer a year earlier. In September of 1988 Howard and Mary met for the first time. By the end of October they had become everything to each other. I cannot count the number of times I have thanked God for bringing Howard into the lives of all of us, and for all the happiness he and Mary have shared during the past 18 years. As Howard wrote in October of 1988, “Mary is truly an outstanding lady. She is wonderful to be with, so warm, caring, and lots of fun, too. We laugh a lot. I have indeed fallen hopelessly in love with her and thank our Lord each day for sending her to me. I need her very much. It has been very exciting this past two weeks for Mary and I. We purchased our rings and set a wedding date, made arrangements for the wedding and reception to follow, and we have been looking at homes to purchase, and of course we will go on a honeymoon trip.”
They were married on Jan. 21, 1989. They went to Tahiti, to New Zealand and to Hawaii for their honeymoon. If ever a marriage was a gift from heaven this was one. Mary and Howard have enjoyed wonderful years together. I remember hearing how they took their little toy poodle, named E2 after the airplane that Mark Sherman, her son-in-law, flew, and visited the elderly in nursing homes as part of the Pet Program to entertain them.
The past eighteen years have been the happiest of Mary’s life. She was able to complete the book she was writing, Patients Pain and Politics and it was published in 1994. It is a true-life account of her ten years of experience as a nursing home inspector and supervisor for the Wisconsin Division of Health. Her area included seven counties, and she was also assistant nursing supervisor for the whole state. In these positions Mary was responsible for the annual licensing and federal certification of 250 nursing homes in her district, and she had general responsibility for all of the state’s nursing home facilities. She received the Exceptional Performance Award from the Wisconsin State Health Department, and was appointed by the Lt. Governor to his Nursing Home Advisory Committee. When Guy Verbest’s wife, Odile, read the book she wrote, “Is it really true? Tell me you made it all up — please! In many parts I felt like I was reading a cross between Agatha Christi and Alfred Hitchcock! I kept thinking…. maybe this is really fiction. I hope it is. But, no! And that, of course, is the scary part. …How did you manage to keep your cool as often as you did?”
After moving to California, Mary became a board member of the Advocates for Nursing Home Reform in 1995, and offered her consultative services to bewildered patients and families, evaluating their care and helping with their problems. She also assisted attorneys in the review and evaluation of patient clinical records in preparation for nursing home litigation. Her work was very satisfying. She said, “Often I think of the sacrifice made by our mother in leaving her children and not seeing them grow up. How proud she must be and how greatly rewarded she surely is as she looks down and sees what a find job God did in helping [all of us grow up].”
During these last eighteen years Mary had more leisure time to read and attend Marian conferences. She especially enjoyed going to conferences about Mary’s apparitions at Medugorje. She had a special devotion to her guardian angel, Jerome. When someone in the family went on a long journey she would send Jerome to offer protection. And who’s to say that her guardian angel didn’t do it? “You better believe it!”
For the past several years Mary was troubled by one illness after another. Now we know this was probably the beginning of lymphoma. But it wasn’t until last Fall that she was diagnosed with stage-four-lymphoma at Mayo’s Clinic. This past January I was able to have some quality time with Mary. After offering Mass for her on January 8th within her home, she began crying. I asked why she was crying. She said, “I saw Jerome during Mass.” After receiving communion Mary saw her guardian angel kneeling nearby. It was a beautiful confirmation and reassurance to her that all would be well. Jerome was ready to go with her as protector and friend on her final journey to heaven.
Christ loves Mary Frances and all of us. Now we have to let go and give her back to God. But we can never give those we love back to God without our heavenly Father giving us the strength and grace we need to finish well our own sojourns on earth. Many people still need us: our friends, our relatives, perhaps some person we have not yet met who will receive our care and love and grow closer to God as a result. We remain behind not just to survive but to serve, to do good to others. And as we ease the burdens of others we find that our own pains become more bearable.
We are never alone because Christ is close to us. We bring our burdens to him, we cry on his shoulder. He weeps with us. He will support us. And he will raise us up to eternal life with all those we love. We no longer see Mary Frances but she is present in a new way. And in this new presence there is joy, peace, love, and the strength to be happy again even in the midst of our losses. If one must stay and another go we would rather this suffering of loss be ours than hers. Our joy will follow later. “You better believe it.“