She was born at home in 1919 and named Alice. The doctors told my grandmother that she might not live because she was small and sickly. A priest was summoned immediately and she was baptized in anticipation of infant death. But God had other plans for baby Alice.
The smallest of thirteen children, she was never allowed to work in the fields with her siblings because of her mother’s concerns for her health. Instead she was relegated to indoor duties – cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. Most kids would have been happy to avoid the grueling farm labor but she always carried a certain amount of guilt for not having carried her weight. But as she told me many times, “Mom said no! And that was the end of the discussion.”
At thirteen years old she left farm and family behind and joined her two older sisters to enter the community of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Missouri. When she made her final vows in 1940 she became Sister Eugene Marie and began a life of teaching that included nearly 40 years at her beloved St. John the Baptist Parish in St. Louis.
Growing up, I knew that our family was special because my Mom had three sisters who were nuns. My Grandpa wore it as a badge of honor that three of his thirteen had dedicated their lives to God. And after Vatican II, Sister Lucy, Sister Noel and Sister Gene could freely join our family gatherings. My Aunts were “way cooler” than the school Sisters that taught me. We could laugh and joke around and I knew that they had lives outside of their classrooms (and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews). My earliest memories of Aunt Gene are of her calling me “PeeWee” and me calling her “Shorty” – that would NEVER have happened with the Sisters at my school.
Perhaps Aunt Gene related to me because I was a scrawny kid like she must have been. Maybe I was drawn to her because she looked like my Mom in a habit. Regardless of the reason we have shared a bond that has lasted my entire life. As a child I loved the attention that she gave me. As an adult I saw how deeply she loved God and the children and families she served. Countless numbers of students were taught by Aunt Gene. And countless more were served in foreign missions through her tireless fundraising efforts. I often wonder if in her work for the missions she ever felt again like little Alice being told to stay indoors while others tended the fields? It doesn’t matter. She could do more with a few pennies than most of us could do with millions. And her gift was freely given.
This week Aunt Gene was carried home to God. She so desperately wanted to see her parents again. I imagine their reunion in heaven was quite a celebration. And those of us left behind will cherish our memories of her and celebrate, too. We honor the life of a humble servant, a great friend, a dear sister and a loving aunt.
I’d like to think she’s finally tending those fields right alongside her Mom and Dad and her siblings, Lucy, Ray, Edna, Art, Vernon, Noel, Frank, Everett and Bob.
P.S. Check out the article from the St. Louis Archdiocese Mission Office: http://archstl.org/missions/content/view/207/308/