Sister Cheryl DeCleene (Ethel Mae)
Comments of Sister Louise Hembrecht, Community Director
Wake – September 30, 2012
This morning during Morning Prayer, we prayed: “Lord Jesus, you are the rising Sun, the first fruits of the future resurrection, grant that we may not sit in the shadow of death but walk in the light of life.” These past years, Sister Cheryl has witnessed to us what it means to be in the shadow of death, but now she walks in the light of life, the light of eternal life.
Though Sister Cheryl’s first nine years of ministry were as a first and second grade teacher, most of her teaching was in the upper grades. There are no special awards from those years in her file, but from evaluations of her teaching, it is clear that she was known for her kindness and patience.
I think kind, gentle, and good are words that I would use to describe Sister Cheryl. In addition to serving the Community and the Church as a teacher and later as an aide in the classroom, and a sponsor presence representative in healthcare, Sister Cheryl served the Community as a Directress. She was a vocation directress and a postulant directress from 1982 to1989 and as a vocation directress and directress of the temporary professed from 1993 to 1996. It was then that I got to know her as I had the privilege of working with her in the vocation office.
Sister Cheryl was not always confident in her role as directress. Giving instructions was not particularly easy for her and yet it was her life, more than her words, that made her an excellent formator. Kindness, gentleness, and goodness were what she conveyed to those under her care.
Sister Cheryl had various health issues during her lifetime. She battled breast cancer twice and had mastectomies fifteen years apart. She did all she could to keep the fluid build up in her arm under control. And yet through it all, she was a positive presence and a kind and gentle person to those who met and knew her. She just seemed to deal with the changes and challenges of her life with a genuine sense of dependence of God.
The last real conversation I had with Sister Cheryl was on December 21, 2008. St. Paul Manor was closing and the General Administration went to the Manor to pray with the Sisters, to give them their new appointments, and to go out for supper with them. It was a happy evening with a mix of sadness at the coming good-byes and camaraderie filled with stories and laughter. The Sisters would be moving to new communities in the new year. Sister Cheryl was going to West Point; it would have been her first time on a Nebraska mission.
Everything changed for Sister Cheryl three days later, on Christmas eve. She had a massive stroke. At first, as we and her family kept vigil with Sister Cheryl, it seemed that Sister Cheryl would not survive the stroke, but the hours became days and it became clear that Sister Cheryl would live. I travelled in the ambulance with Sister Cheryl as she came to the Motherhouse and settled in St. Rita’s. It was New Year’s Eve and the Community was at Holy Hour.
In the weeks that followed, Sister Cheryl showed improvement. She no longer needed oxygen, she could eat, she could feed herself, she could walk, she could smile, she could respond a little though communication was difficult because the words didn’t come out right. A speech therapist worked with her, but the stroke had attacked and permanently damaged the speech and communication center of her brain.
Weeks became months and the months turned into years. Sometimes Sister Cheryl was responsive but as time passed Sister Cheryl’s ability to respond and interact seemed to lessen. Through it all, her family came to visit, to spend time with her, to keep her informed of what was happening in the family, to just be with her. Friends, members of the crowd and those whose lives she had touched in Community also spent time with her. Though it was not always easy to see Sister Cheryl in her diminished and dependent state, her family and many in community witnessed that life is important by their faithfulness to her.
There were not major changes in Sister Cheryl in the days before her death. A couple months before Dr. Herring had heard a slight change in her heart and had said that he would not be surprised if the Lord came for her in the near future, but life seemed to go on as it had been for Sister Cheryl. September 26 was an ordinary day for her. About 4:20 a.m. on the 27th as she slept, the Lord came for Sister Cheryl. We did not expect it, but we know that Sister Cheryl was ready. We know that she no longer lives in the shadow of death, but that she walks in the light of life. Her ability to communicate has been restored and what a joy it must be for her as she communicates with the God to whom she has been faithful and with all the saints and angels. And now we can communicate with her on a different level.
We are grateful for her life in our midst, for her service and the witness of her life. We will miss her but we rejoice that she has not only been restored to health beyond imagining. Now she lives with Jesus, her Lord, the first fruit of the resurrection who has led her to live in the light of life, the light of eternal life. We can only be happy for her.