Sister Elizabeth (Sylvester) Coffey, O.S.B.
February 17, 1917 - March 7, 2011
Sister Elizabeth (Sylvester) Coffey, OSB, 94, a Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, Kans., died at the monastery Tuesday, March 8, 2011. The vigil service will be in the monastery chapel Thursday, March 10, 2011, at 7 pm, and the Mass of Resurrection will be offered there Friday, March 11, 2011, at 10:30 am, followed by burial in the monastery cemetery.
Born Feb. 17, 1917, to James Patrick and Julia Ellen McQuinn Coffey, Sister Elizabeth grew up in Wymore, Nebr. Her mother died when she was eleven and her father sent her to Mount St. Scholastica Academy from which she graduated in 1934. She entered the Mount Community in 1936 and made monastic profession in 1938. She graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College in 1939, taught in community schools, notably the Mount Academy; Lillis High School, Kansas City, Mo.; and Donnelly College, Kansas City, Kans. For brief periods she taught at St. Mary’s High School, Walsenburg, Colo., and at Benedictine College, Atchison, where she also later served on their Board of Directors.
Sister Elizabeth earned the Master of Arts in speech with a minor in speech pathology from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. She also did extensive graduate work in counseling and drama. Her interest in the elderly and in rural life led her to study at Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Nebr., where she certified in their program for Advanced Pastoral Education. She served as a pastoral associate at Christ the King Parish, Kansas City, Kans., and presented training sessions for Eucharistic ministers and lectors for the Kansas City, Kansas Archdiocesan Liturgy Office. For ten years she represented Catholic Community Services in the Nemaha-Marshall Region. Throughout her life, Sister Elizabeth served her religious community in many capacities, including the monastic council and the senate; and her professional activities included the core committee of the Kansas City, Kans. Chapter of Kansans for the Improvement of Nursing Homes,membership in the Foster Grandparent Program Advisory Board, and active membership in many professional organizations and seminars.
Sister Elizabeth was predeceased by her parents and her brothers Donald and Robert. She is survived by her sister, Rita Krim, Atchison; by her nephew Robert Michael Coffey, Greensboro, NC; niece Patricia Coffey Swanzy, Lakewood, Colo.; cousin, Frances Coffey Smith, Tampa, Fla.; and by her monastic community.
Let us remember her gratefully in our prayers.
S. Elizabeth's memorial card:
“With a heart full of thanks,
I proclaim your wonders, God.”
Joyful, witty, and compassionate, Sister Elizabeth Coffey fulfilled in her vocation what her mother had told her when she was a child: Sisters “helped people who need to be loved or helped.” The daughter of James Patrick and Julia Ellen McQuinn Coffey of Wymore, Nebr., Elizabeth lost her mother when she was 11, and relied on her father’s understanding love when she was deciding about being a Sister. He sent her to Mount St. Scholastica Academy from which she graduated in 1934. She entered the Mount community in 1936 and made monastic profession in 1938. She graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College and earned the MA in speech from Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. Sister Elizabeth taught at Lillis High School, Benedictine College, and Donnelly College where she directed student services. She became interested in the elderly, the poor, and in rural life concerns and was certified in Advanced Pastoral Education at Bryan Memorial Hospital, Lincoln, Nebr. She represented Catholic Community Services in the Nemaha-Marshall Pastoral Region for ten years. Sister Elizabeth found strength and inspiration in the Liturgy of the Hours, in centering prayer, and Scripture reading. She found Vatican II changes liberating. She reclaimed her baptismal name and was happy to pray in English. She was a loyal Nebraska fan all her life. Let us remember her gratefully in our prayer.
Reflection given at the Vigil Service
by Therese Elias, OSB
“I go to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to myself.”
These words from tonight’s Gospel were the foundation of Elizabeth’s hope. She lived every day with such assurance. She set her mind on the reality of God’s love, that life with God was her destiny. She knew where she was going.
We think of her going, so quietly in the night with no fanfare, no trouble to anyone, as being so like her. She took her last breath in the quiet darkness, in the peace – just Elizabeth and God. I wonder if she heard the voice of God saying something similar to what St. Mechtild heard: “Do not fear your death, for when that moment arrives, I will draw my breath and your soul will come to me like a needle to a magnet.” Elizabeth knew God’s desire for her and had felt its magnetic pull in every moment of her life. She lived so fully in the presence of God that it was if every breath was a “breathing” with God, every breathing-out a surrender to the magnetism of God’s love, so that when that last breath of God drew her home, she went gently, but quickly. She knew where she was going.
We saw in Elizabeth the “good zeal” that Benedict gives us as the ideal of the monastic life, the one who, humbly and “with fervent love, is the first to show respect for the other.” How often she was tired or in pain, we can only imagine, so attentive was she to the person in front of her. Her body may have diminished, but never her spirit. Scholars of the Rule point out that humility is not something we achieve, but a gift given for a life lived well, a life lived with integrity, generosity and sacrificial love. We know humility, not from a description in a book, but in what we experience in a humble person. The chapter in the Rule on humility is not a “how to manual,” but a description of what humility looks and feels like. Elizabeth fit that description.
Elizabeth’s friends speak of her with words like “gracious,” “generous.” “simple,” “down-to-earth,” “funny.” She was grateful for the smallest act of kindness. How many ‘thank you’ notes she wrote! And how precious are the ones she wrote when her eyesight was failing and the writing difficult. And when she could no longer write, she asked others to write for her or she made phone calls that someone else dialled for her. No act of kindness went unnoticed or unappreciated.
Elizabeth’s room was a welcoming space. Every place we met her was a welcoming space because she consistently met us with attentiveness and warmth. She made us feel at home. She made space for us. She showed us the God we pray to every day in the psalms, the God reflected in the Rule of Benedict, as an extravagant God throwing open the doors to everyone. Like Jesus in the Gospel, she made a place for us and, in her way, reminds us to make a place for others in our lives and in our hearts. She lived with an expanded and expansive heart.
Isn’t it fitting that Elizabeth, who was always one to plan and throw a party, and then to be the life of it (!) should die on Shrove Tuesday and celebrate Mardi Gras in the grandest way possible? She certainly taught us how to have a good time and, in so doing, taught us how splendid it is to be human. Her joy in living, her humor that prevailed in spite of her diminishment, directs us forward to our true home, to resurrection. What better model and companion could we have as we enter into Lent, as we enter into the Paschal Mystery, as we set out on this way that calls us to live in sacrificial love for Christ and for others.
She, who always tried to let the other be first, has gone before us and left us an example of what Benedict promises in the Prologue to the Rule: “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” That was Elizabeth. That is Elizabeth. May she, who lived this so well, be our companion on the journey.