Friday, October 5, 2012

Special times with Sister Pat

Campus Ministry girls surprise Sister Pat with a card and
flowers for CSJ Appreciation Day at the Mount, March 23, 2011.
FRIEND AND FELLOW Benedictine oblate Ann Kinkor suggested titling this little memorial "Better, Different, or More Special Times with Sister Pat." Our prayer group of oblates had many occasions to pray for Sister in the nine months Sister volunteered in the College Archives. And now she's gone, passing away in her sleep two nights ago in the Alzheimer's unit at St. John of God hospital.

Sister Patricia Gage, CSJ, was a Mount graduate and Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for almost sixty years. Sister Pat was well known in her community for "having mind of her own," and that was before Alzheimer's started taking its toll. Okay, she was quirky, and therefore no ordinary volunteer.

She arrived in the College Archives unannounced one day, bright-eyed, smiling, and raring to go. She had with her two of her Sisters from down the hill at Carondelet Center.  "Sister would like to volunteer in the library," they said. It did not sound like a question.

Sister among the books with Shakespeare
on her lap.
Pat had volunteered at the University of San Diego library and proudly presented a well-worn, much folded and grubby sheet of letterhead from the director there describing her sweet disposition and dedication. There was no telling how long she'd carried it with her, but it didn't matter, Sister Pat was going to volunteer at the Chalon Campus library and she was going to start right now, today. As the other Sisters headed back to Carondelet Center, we cast about (a bit desperately) for something she could do.

Alzheimer's robs its victims very quickly of short-term memory. Pat's diagnosis had come just the previous month, and its progress was swift. She handled with ease the to-and-fro between the college and Carondelet Center and occasionally clutched little slips of paper with reminders about appointments. But it rapidly became difficult for her to stick to any task that requiring much organization. She did pretty well sleeving the old photographs in mylar, and could even identify an occasional Sister or student from the 1950s and 1960s. But filing and foldering were out, because remembering what item went in which folder is kind of fundamental to archives work. It didn't take long for chaos to start creeping into the files.

Nevertheless, Sister Pat was happy as a kid with a new kitten. She radiated pure joy at being busy. She was joyful, too, at being expected, at having somewhere to go, at having somewhere to be. If one isn't paying attention, one will miss the profound lesson in this. To see these photos is to witness a soul in genuine harmony with her life -- which is wildly ironic because at the same time the rest of Sister's life was rapidly unraveling.

Like all independent spirits, she was deeply resentful of having been uprooted from her apartment in San Diego, where she had been missioned for a quarter century (dietitian by training, she taught impoverished mothers how to nourish their new babies). In spite of the spectacular ocean view from her room at Carondelet Center and plenty of companionship, she wanted only to get to her "job" in the Mount archives.

So the agreed-upon two half-days days a week became three, and three full days became five, and soon she was charging up the steep hill on weekends and even holidays, her spindly 5-foot-10 frame bent permanently into a 5-foot-5 question mark. She'd be confused at finding the Archives locked and would sit unhappily on the library steps until she remembered to go home or someone came to fetch her.

It's no small Providence that Sister Pat, with most archives work beyond her, settled on just the right task -- dusting the rare books. "Dusting" is a term used loosely. It doesn't do justice to the spit-polished, elbow-greased renewal that went on with our neglected volumes.  Glistening gold leaf and shiny leather spines reemerged from the residue of the ages, and though her methods would make a book conservator cringe, the shelves started looking a lot better.

We finally had to lock up the Scotch tape because she used it, and inventively, for everything from leather binding repair to minor tears in 18th Century paper. She didn't seem to mind when it disappeared, although she asked for it every day. One day we found her in a blizzard of tiny shards of yellowed paper, rubbing furiously at the deckled edges of a century-old vellum-bound Bibliophile Society volume. She was apparently resolved to remove the deckling altogether. But what is fine paper compared to some small happiness and peace of mind for someone with an evil disease?

Tending the books could have blessedly gone on forever, because Sister Pat would forget which ones she'd cleaned and give them a second and third -- and fourth -- going-over. She renewed faded labels, and then renewed the new ones, singing little songs and talking to herself. The books gradually got out of order but were easily put to rights. Except for the occasional kerfuffle -- ack! how did she get the tape again? -- thus was the even tenor of our archival partnership.

But came the day when the CSJs went on retreat and the archivist on vacation -- no work up the hill for a full, terrible week. What was described to us later as a "meltdown" resulted in Sister Pat's being uprooted again, this time to St. John of God. She was too big a handful by then even for her Sisters.

We were busy cleaning up after a mold outbreak in the archives room and didn't have much time to register Pat's day-to-day absence. We would send her an occasional card and get back a remarkably lucid letter. Her family and Sisters would visit and take her to lunch, and she had the beautiful grounds of the St. Benedict Menni wing to enjoy. Oh, and there were reports that she'd thrown away her clothes again, or slipped her caregivers and headed out -- where? Back to the archives?

Sister and archivist.
Many people have pointed out that we have a guardian angel now looking over the archives and rare books. Seeing these pictures again reminds us how much Pat brightened our days, even with the battle over the scotch tape. 

God bless you, Sister Pat, you're where you wanted to be at last -- someplace you're expected, somewhere you can be.


  1. I will never forget the summer spent working in the almost empty library, and being startled by coming face-to-face with Sister, a ghost in the stacks. She was indeed always humming to herself, and occasionally, speaking aloud to the souls imprisoned on the shelves waiting to come to life again for a reader. I was startled many times that summer, but I was intrigued by this ancient guardian of the things I hold so dear: books.

    As another fall commences, I wondered where this lively spirit had gone. Now I know. But I'd like to think I'll see her again, a wisp of mist floating between shelves, dusting and protecting. In the library, a place filled wall-to-wall with learned and friendly ghosts, Sister will be there always. And although she scared me a few times when she rounded a corner, I will be comforted by her presence in the stacks, an angel now at peace and free from the suffering of such a terrible disease.

    Great piece, Vicky.

  2. Thanks, Paul. Sister's memorial at Carondelet Center was moving. She was a true servant of Jesus and gave little consideration to herself, tirelessly working for the poor.

    One mystery was solved -- how she made it so rapidly up the hill every day. She participated in three complete marathons! -- not to mention innumerable runs and walks for charity.

    Your comments are charming -- I'm glad someone besides us few in the library appreciated our ghost in the stacks. She's our guardian.