Reflections by Sister Margaret Botch

Morning Prayer Service

September 23, 2006

Margaret Botch
Margaret Botch, SP

Celebrating God’s Favor

Gospel Reading: Matthew 25: 32-40
Quotes from Archival Records

Today, we celebrate God’s favor with this morning prayer. Our Gospel is surprising one. It does proclaim God’s favor – the promise of an inheritance; but also it is a word of judgment and a challenge. It is a call to caring, courage, and compassion.

Come, you whom my Father has blessed. Take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world – I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these sisters and brothers of mine, you did it to me.

A call to compassion …

Today is the anniversary of the death of Blessed Emilie Gamelin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence. Many of you may know the story of how she died in 1851, but do you know that at 13 years before that – when she was a lay woman and before she began the Sisters of Providence  – she had a near death experience?

As the story is told, she got typhoid fever, and nothing could be done to help her. Finally she became unconscious. The old ladies that she cared for and several friends including her spiritual director (Father St. Pierre) were gathered at her bed. They thought she was dying.

But suddenly, she opened her eyes. Then she saw Father St. Pierre and she smiled. In a weak voice she said: “I saw the place prepared for me in heaven. I saw my husband and my children. They tried reached out for me to come. But then Our Lady – our Blessed Mother – sent me away. “Don’t be impatient,” she said. “You are not going to die now.”

Then she showed me my crown. There were hardly any jewels in it! I am not ready to die. I need more charity. I need to be more humble before I am ready to hear God say, “Take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”

Her life marked by humility and courage

She seemed even to have a sense of humor as she accepted the challenge to care more. Her life was marked by humility and courage. This was the woman, whose second name became compassion.

For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.

The words from Mother Joseph that we just heard also take us to her last days and – gentle as they are – are words of judgment and challenge.

On January 8 or 9, 1902 (accounts vary), Bishop Edward J. O’Dea interrupted his pastoral visit of the diocese and returned to Vancouver specifically to administer the Last Rites to Mother Joseph.

The chronicles again describe the scene and record Mother Joseph’s last testament to her sisters: “Peace and happiness reflected in her face, so drawn and broken by suffering … After communion, having made her profession of faith with all the ardor of which her heart was capable and renewing her vows in a strong voice, she asked pardon of the Community in these words:

My sisters, I ask pardon for the grief I may have caused you. I forgive you also with all my heart – I recommend myself to your prayers. I love my Community and I have always loved it.

I am happy to die as a member of the Community – I have always been happy to spend myself for the works of the Institute and this to the best of my ability.

After a pause, she continued with the words we heard earlier:

Permit me to recommend to you the care of the poor both in the institutions and outside of them; have no fear to assist the poor and to receive them – you will then not have any regrets. Do not say: Ah! This does not concern me, let others attend to them. Whatever concerns the poor is always our affair?

Again – a word of judgment and challenge. A call to courage, caring and compassion.

Meeting the challenge

But what is it to hear the cry of the poor when you yourself are poor? What if you are called to do something for which you are wholly inadequate? What does it require? Again, we turn our pioneer Sisters of Providence, as we heard in the archives reading about our mission to the Native Americans.

Our hearts were full of joy when you passed through our country. Now I want you to come and live with us and teach our girls. Our Fathers, the Blackrobes take care of our boys and we are glad; but our girls are orphans. They are ignorant and they will always be that way, unless you come. When I went to see you, you made me so welcome that I could see how well you like the Indians; now I want you to ask the chief of the women Blackrobes to give us sisters.

Seltice, Chief of the Coeur d’Alene, to Catherine, S.P., 1870

A story about the how challenging cross-cultural ministry tells us that Jesuit Father Peter John DeSmet knew he had found the right religious community to assume the role of educator to his beloved Indian tribes. Here was a newly arrived group eager to work with the natives and willing to traverse rugged terrain to fulfill their calling in remote areas.

On September 17, 1864 Mother Mary of the Infant Jesus, 37, Mary Edward, 32. Paul Miki, 21, and Remi, 18, set out in a caravan of three Jesuit priests, two baggage carriers, a man for emergencies, and set out on horseback from Walla Walla for St. Ignatius Mission in the Flathead Reservation of Montana. St. Ignatius became the sisters’ new home and they named their school for girls after the Holy Family. Life was hard for both Indians and settlers of the area. The troubles came to a head in 1866 when an ultimatum was given by an Indian chief to the sisters. One of the sisters later narrated the story:

When the first Sisters had been at St. Ignatius for two years, they still could not speak the Salish language very successfully. The old Chief came to the school to throw them out. He said, “If you can?t learn the Indian language, go back to Montreal. You are no good to us here.”

Mother Mary of the Infant Jesus was in great distress, but she asked for more time, and she prayed about it. She offered a huge sacrifice to God to add weight to her prayers: she made promise not to read any of her mail from her family in Montreal. Since mail came about once a year from Fort Benton on the upper Missouri River, it was a great sacrifice. That year the Sisters learned the Salish language. Moreover, the young Sisters managed to rescue Mother’s unopened mail from the waste basket, read it, and drop the news for her to hear from time to time. Eventually the mission and its schools for girls and boys thrived.

The sisters, and Mother Mary in this story truly cared. She had courage, and the others, even among themselves, lived compassion.

The reading from my sister, Bernadette Botch, is also a challenging and a judgment call. It is a call to give our lives for the mission:

We have ordered our lives that justice and truth might be served. We have reflected on God?s presence among us and within us that we might walk more humbly with our God. Ours is a call to go beyond the passive concern for those  in need, to a demand for justice that will bring peace.

Bernadette Botch, S.P., 1981

A personal story, with a touch of humor

Would you mind one more death bed story? I believe that I am the only witness to this one. When Bernie was dying of cancer in 2000 I had the privilege of living the journey with her. It was a life journey. There was nothing passive about it. She gave her life fully and generously.

As she neared her last days I was concerned that things were unraveling in the Spokane Diocese since Bernie was the finance director and was unable to do the job. I urged her to resign. But she was a person with a “can do” spirit and this was not something she could imagine. We had several conversations about it.

On the day before she died Bishop Skylstad came to see her, as he had done several times. They had a private time together. Then he left. After that I was sitting by her bed, and she looked over at me with a gleam in her eye. She whispered, with the strength she could muster. “I told the bishop that I am dying,” she said. Then a little smile appeared, “But I didn’t resign.”

Then the upright will say to Him in reply,  Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you? And the King will answer, I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of
the least of these sisters and brothers of mine, you did it to me.

You did it! You did it to me! You did it to the least, little ones. You did it with courage, caring, and compassion. And maybe a touch of humor.