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    a flowering tree

    Pillars of Our Communities

    In my parish, Fran was one of those unheralded saints who quietly and determinedly make the world better. Who will step up?

    By Terence Sweeney

    July 10, 2024
    • Sr. Margaret Kerry, fsp

      Bravo St Fran of Philadelphia! We are all better because of your light placed on the stand. Thank you for reminding me to stand in the light of contemporary saints whose ordinary holiness inspires me to the heights in every ordinary moment.

    Fran died this week. She garnered no headlines in national publications nor in her hometown’s newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. But I still think her death matters, or more to the point, her life matters. Any community requires people who are pillars, who uphold us by doing the work of that makes a bunch of individuals an us. Fran was such a pillar both at in our parish and in our neighborhood. Pillars are people whom we rely on, often without knowing. In a Christian sense, they are the anonymous saints who serve and sanctify and make up most of the heavenly city even if they are an unnoticed minority in our earthly cities.

    We so rarely realize how much we are carried by these anonymous saints around us who quietly and determinedly make the world better. Paying more attention to them offers people exemplars for the possibility of social engagement in our time. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that sainthood is not some obscure practice from the past but a need of our present.

    I live in West Philadelphia, a diverse neighborhood of rowhouses, trolleys, universities, and Ethiopian restaurants. My Catholic parish, St. Francis de Sales, is a small vibrant community in a big, beautiful church building. I had known Fran for years in the parish as a woman present at every Thanksgiving food drive and Christmas toy drive. Each October, dogs, cats, iguanas, and birds were blessed in our parish garden because she organized the St. Franics animal blessing. She recruited me to the choir and others to all kinds of ministries. She somehow quietly managed to be everywhere when a hand was needed and also was committed to the Divine Mercy Chaplet. On visits to the local park I found a Christmas carol sing she organized, a Dickens birthday celebration she supported (by our park’s statue of him, which she saved from demolition), and a Veterans Day service she put together with the Boy Scouts.

    portrait of a woman by a flowering tree

    Fran. Image courtesy of the author.

    I don’t think I understood the measure of her devotion until Covid hit. Every year, Fran organized my parish’s blood drive and coaxed and cajoled us into the parish hall to give a pint. When Covid hit, blood drives all over were canceled or bereft of donors. At the same time, Fran was beginning treatment for the cancer that would eventually take her life. Did she cancel our parish blood drive? Quite the opposite. Suddenly we went from a blood drive once a year to once a month. She was indefatigable, email, calling, and marketing. Covid, as she told me, did not mean that people did not need blood. Surprised a bit, I found myself helping at a blood drive, taking people’s temperatures, helping with spacing, and giving blood myself. Why? Because Fran recruited me. Thus, once a month in whatever space she could find, Fran gathered people and nurses to give the gift of life even though she herself could not give blood anymore.

    C. S. Lewis ends his sermon “The Weight of Glory” by reminding his listeners that “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” But it is not just that we walk among immortals. Among these immortals, there are saints, what Lewis calls “everlasting splendors.” We can think saints are the stuff of the early church, medieval legends, or martyrologies. People who live in a way we can’t imagine, folks with mystical visions or who are ripped apart by lions. No doubt these are saints – and some might be living around the corner from us.

    But just as often the work of holiness is the quiet work of getting a few people together to do some good. It is this sanctity we can aim for, and God will provide the visions or martyrdom as needed. Pillars of our communities show us the ways we can live the human vocation. There are – as there have always been – so many problems in our world. But there are people holding the world up. The work they do is often unrecognized but when they pass away, we notice because suddenly the work is still there waiting to be done.

    Too often we ignore these pillars – or worse, malign them. “Church ladies,” we call them. We grumble when they ask us to help with organizing a trip for the kids someplace, to usher a service, or to join in a park cleaning project. Each year, I knew Fran would call me repeatedly until I answered and said, “Yes, I’ll give blood” and then “Yes, I can help put up signs for the blood drive as well.” It was easy to roll my eyes sometimes. But as I watched her work, slowed by cancer, I remembered that the child in a car accident, the elderly person undergoing surgery, the hemophiliac in need of blood depended, in part, on our Fran.

    The point of this isn’t to call santo subito for Fran (though why not!). It is more an exhortation to gratitude and respect for her and all the other unnoticed pillars. Perhaps I also hope to remind us (especially myself) to answer those phone calls from the Frans of the world. They are pillars, but if we ignore them, they can’t hold us up. A pillar by itself cannot hold much up; one person’s hands can’t do all the work. Answer their phone calls and help.

    We are also called to become pillars ourselves. As a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article detailed, many volunteer organizations are facing crisis. The people, mostly women, who have long done the essential work are old or dying. Who is going to fill their shoes? If no one does, all of us, especially the needy, forgotten, and marginalized, will suffer. The only ones who can fill their shoes are you and me. What’s the work that is undone in your parish, in your neighborhood, your community? Rather than complain about it, start doing it. Hold up your community. In doing so, you will likely realize all the ways that you are being held up by the anonymous saints all around us.

    Around us all, there are Frans, people who we may or may not know but upon whom we depend. In realizing that we depend on them, we are called to become the kind of people upon whom others can depend. A eulogy for the dead – a good word (eu legein) spoken for them – is as much about inspiring the living as it is a prayer for the deceased and a remembrance of the goodness of the life that has ended. Fran, I pray, is in heaven, holding us up with prayer now. We do well in remembering her and the many anonymous saints who have passed on. They are the people who have been, and so continue to be, pillars of our communities. We remember them best when we live as they have lived.

    Contributed By TerenceSweeney Terence Sweeney

    Terence Sweeney is an assistant teaching professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University.

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