Sister Rose Emma Monaghan, OSU

WAKE REFLECTION for Sr. Rose Emma Monaghan, OSU

Early Christians often described the Christmas mystery of the Incarnation in words that are startling to modern ears: “God became human so that human beings could become divine.” The Incarnation reminds us that God in Jesus now has personal experience of the varied pieces of our lives: birth, family life, sickness, friendship, loneliness, creative work, the beauty of music and nature, losing loved ones, being misunderstood, the uncertainty of approaching death, and the final letting go into the unknown yet trusted arms of God — and ALL of that can be clothed with God’s own divine Spirit! Tonight, it is our great hope and fervent prayer that this mystery of Incarnation has reached fulfillment for Sr. Rose Emma.

Sr. Rose Emma’s final journey into the fullness of divine life began around 3 a.m. on Saturday, December 27, 2008, the feast of St. John the Evangelist. If she could have chosen her entrance day into eternal life, I think she would have considered this feast an appropriate one, since it honors the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” one whose gospel theology soars like an eagle above other New Testament texts. Sr. Rose Emma longed to be among the “disciples whom Jesus loved,” and she faithfully struggled to soar back into the heart of God, in whom her life began.

As we gather to mark her passing from time into eternity, on behalf of the Ursuline community, I want to extend our sympathy and prayerful support to you, her family of beloved nieces, nephews, and greats, as well as to those here who were her long-time friends. I also want to thank the healthcare staff of St. Joseph Villa for your tireless care and love for Sr. Rose Emma. I hope you know how much Sister appreciated you.

Rose Emma’s earthly journey began at home in Percival, Iowa, on April 14, 1915, as the sixth of Rose Emma McGuigan and Thomas Joseph Monaghan’s 11 children. She was born with a congenital dislocated hip, an inoperable disability. Still, she had wonderful memories of her childhood, and was always proud of her Iowa farm heritage. In 1989, she wrote of her early life:

“I was proud of my seven brothers and three sisters! Music and our own family orchestra were important to me. We were the only Catholic family in Fremont County and the KKK was strong in that area. Mother and Dad urged us to excel in our studies and keep out of trouble to avoid conflict or harassment by the KKK or certain hostile teachers in the public schools. For seven years I attended an eight-grade one-room school called PRAIRIE. I was a resident student at St. Bernard Academy for my high school years. I washed dishes to help pay my expenses; enjoyed classes; took piano, clarinet, and theory lessons, and belonged to the choir and glee club and orchestra. I felt the call to be an Ursuline during my Academy years…”

When she entered the Ursulines at Maple Mount in September 1932, Rose Emma joined classmates Sisters Edwardine, Joseph Adrian, Charles Catherine, Francis Ursula, Patricia Ann Frey, Mauritia, Barbara Ann, Praxedes, Mary Oderic, Mary Grace, and Wendeline. Nine days later, she contracted scarlet fever and was put in isolation for over a month. Even after the quarantine ended, her prolonged weakness caused her to be assigned easy typing jobs for professed sisters, a situation that further isolated her from classmates among whom she already felt like a “stray,” in that five of them were from Holy Cross, Kentucky, and five were graduates from the Academy. She was the only member of her class who knew no one else at the Motherhouse. She later wrote that it was the Blessed Mother who helped her through her difficult novitiate and kept her focused on the love of Jesus that had brought her to the Mount. She professed temporary vows on August 15, 1935, and began her Ursuline ministerial life with an English major.

In reading through her file, it is impossible not to notice the shadow of the Cross over much of Sister Rose Emma’s life. She had chosen Jesus Christ as her Bridegroom and, to her eyes of faith, it often seemed as if he offered her the cup of suffering he spoke about to St. John and his brother James in the gospel. Of her mission experiences, she wrote the following:

“My first mission was St. Denis, Fancy Farm — grades 5, 6, 7, and 8. I liked my work, students, companions, and the “poorness” of the place. However, I contracted malaria and was there only one year. Next I spent one year teaching 1st and 2nd grades at Holy Cross, Ky. That was a disaster, as I didn’t know how to teach or manage children of that age. Then I was sent to Clementsville to open a small high school. Even though we had to start from “scratch,” I enjoyed my time there. Next came Knottsville — St. William’s High School — all four years in one room with one teacher — a good experience! From there I went to teach the high school boys at St. Alphonsus — five of my best and happiest years of teaching. Plattsmouth, Neb., was my next assignment. It was there that my “bone problems” took over and I was off-duty from January 1949 to September 1951. Much of that time was spent in St. Joseph Hospital, Omaha, where I had three major orthopedic surgeries. In September of 1951, I was still in our Infirmary recuperating from my surgeries when Mother Ambrose asked me if I could go to Central City to open a small high school… so I went on crutches! I was there for seven years. Doctors then ordered that I discontinue stairs…I was sent to Stanley — grades 5 and 6. Another disaster year! In May I received a call from Mother Mary Wilfred asking me to be Postmaster at Maple Mount. For 27 years, winter, spring, summer, fall, I worked for God and Uncle Sam!”

It’s no secret throughout Daviess County that Sr. Rose Emma loved “the boys who graduated from the Mount,” those 28 young men from St. Alphonsus who received high school diplomas from the Academy between 1944 and 1948. Many of them kept in touch with her over the years, and most recently in 2002 they (or their descendants) financed a memorial fountain in the Retreat Center’s Memory Meditation Garden, dedicated to her and Sr. Karl Melanie Brill.

I first met Sr. Rose Emma in her last ministry assignment, when she was working “for God and Uncle Sam” in the Post Office. As an Academy work-study student, I cleaned the Post Office for three of my four years, and so I had almost daily contact with Rose Emma. In many ways she served as a kind of favorite aunt, someone who remained remarkably interested in all the details of my sheltered young life, someone who taught me by example as well as by her wise counsel. In the early development of my own religious vocation to the Ursulines, she was one of the two most formative influences. Her genuine care for me shaped me in ways that it took years to fully appreciate. As an adult, I came to recognize that, as the most public face of Mount Saint Joseph for many people, she offered this same interest and concern to numerous individuals who passed through the Post Office doors. She became the friend and confidante of local residents and sisters alike. We who knew her during those years knew someone who was deeply interested in the spiritual life in its totality: a great reader and avid news hound, she always brought the needs of the world, the church, and the Ursuline community which she loved to prayer.

In late 1985 the shadow of the Cross once again loomed large in Sister Rose Emma’s life. Within five months, she had knee replacement surgery, a heart attack, and gall bladder surgery. As a result, at the end of February 1986 she retired from the Post Office and began to enjoy more time for prayer. Her other retirement activities included making copies of cassette tapes for sisters, spending time with those who needed a “listening ear,” and visiting the sick. She also rejoiced in her family contacts. She reported that the highlight of 1991 was a visit from her sister Alyce from Phoenix, Alyce’s first visit to the Mount in 40 years. In spite of the distance that separated them, she maintained frequent phone contacts. She cherished and was always excited to share with both visitors and staff the flowers, the Christmas presents, and most recently, the exquisitely beautiful quilt sent by her nephew Mark.

In 1993, osteoporosis forced Sister Rose Emma permanently into a wheelchair, though she remained extraordinarily mobile with her motorized chair. In 2003, Sister moved to St. Joseph Villa, a setting that was alternately Gethsemane and the waiting room of Paradise. It was here that the mystery of the Incarnation started toward its climax in Rose Emma’s life, just as the Incarnation of Jesus led ultimately to his Passion and death. As the “earthly tent” of her body gave out more and more, she could identify with St. Paul’s words (2 Cor. 4:16—5:5): “While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us, so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” The limitations of Sister’s human body throughout her life had indeed evoked both physical and spiritual groans, but her faith remained strong that, when the time came for her to move beyond her earthly tent, a heavenly and eternal dwelling built by God would be ready for her. God has now called her to begin — not a new year of earthly time — but an entirely new way of life beyond time, a life whose beauty we cannot fathom except perhaps to imagine the joy of the finally reunited Monaghan family orchestra offering their music in honor of the Incarnate Jesus.

Sister Rose Emma, we thank you for your thirst for your Beloved God that spanned almost 76 years of religious life. We thank you for your fidelity amid great physical suffering. We honor in you the profound mystery of Jesus that forever links Incarnation to Passion and death. We take comfort in the truth you taught us especially in your final years: that authentic Christian spirituality never escapes the body but must infuse its limitations with divine grace.

Yes, during this Christmas season, we remember that God became human so that human beings could become divine. Our Ursuline Christmas prayer is that, as we celebrate during these days the first half of that mystery — God become human — Sister Rose Emma is by God’s grace experiencing the second half, divinization in Christ. As St. Paul promised, “God has fashioned us for this very thing and has given us the Spirit as a pledge [or down payment] of it.” As Rose Emma leaves behind her human body in death, we pray that she has irrevocably “put on Christ,” so that God’s triune life now fills her entire being. Thus the Christmas mystery will be reversed, that the human person Rose Emma Monaghan will by God’s grace have put on divinity as she enters into the heart of her Divine Spouse.


Written by Sister Cheryl Clemons

December 29, 2008