Reflection of Vigil Service of Sister Mildred Gelis, O.S.B.
June 23, 1925 – July 26, 2019
The opening lines of the Gospel reading we just heard could be Sister Mildred speaking. I can hear her saying: “Don’t be worried or upset, I’m just going ahead to prepare a place for you. See you there.”
[Up front I have to tell you, in preparing this reflection I was fortunate to have at hand reflections offered by former prioresses on Sister Mildred’s Golden and Diamond jubilees.] Sister’s nephew and niece (Michael and Cynthia) – here with us tonight – can attest to Sister’s simplicity and quiet sense of humor – I believe she would have smiled lovingly and OK’d my borrowing from the tributes of 1994 and 2004.
Sister Mildred had her first contact with the Benedictine Sisters in grade school in Slidell, LA. As a youngster she sat in on her older sister’s piano lessons with Sister Helen. She sat quietly in the room engrossed in a favorite activity: reading, usually the Reader’s Digest. Reading remained a favorite past-time until dementia made it a trial to follow the story line.
Sister first visited the community here in FL in 1941. On that trip she was accompanied by her mother with S. Helen as their driver. S. Helen recalled that Yvonne was fascinated at the sight of the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. (Remember in 1941 there was no I-10 so they traveled the shore road along the Florida panhandle to Hwy 19.) Many of you know how much Sister enjoyed that 10 or 12-hour drive to Slidell to visit with relatives.
Only a “call of nature” (that’s Benedict’s expression for a pit stop) would cause Sister to make stop. In preparation (predating built-in cup holders) she’d position her bottle of Mountain Dew, some fresh apple slices and an easy-to-open container of Whoopers candies. You do know that Sister Mildred enjoyed her sweets … 2 heaping teaspoons of sugar into her breakfast orange juice, sugar atop cottage cheese or tomatoes. And my goodness, she could own stock in Dollar Tree with her candy purchases!
Many of you knew Sister Mildred as teacher, and later principal at St. Joseph Elementary School – baseball coach and umpire, music and art teacher. For 31 years she quietly and persistently persuaded the Pasco Schools authority to keep that school open for “her children.” It grew from a two-room schoolhouse to a full single-grade kindergarten – 8th grade program. The population grew, so did the plant – now there were indoor bathrooms! In 1981, with the opening of San Antonio Elementary School, Sister “retired” – that’s a joke – and began working at Saint Leo (then) College in the copy center. She learned the workings of every machine and became the proficient at making minor repairs. Sister was a precise set up and copy artist. (Hope she would approve these service booklets?) She would work evenings and weekends to make certain we had materials before any deadlines. In 1990, Sister requested, and was granted, permission to visit with a close friend who was teaching in Germany. That year she traveled in Germany, France and Japan. A year before the trip Sister spent many hours boning up on French so that when she visited her father’s homeland and relatives she could converse in the native language. Her letters home that year bubbled with her excitement and humor.
In one letter she wrote: “I went to the doctor with a sinus infection last fall. I had numbness in my left arm for over a week, so I went to the doctor again. He suggested shock treatment which I took in his office every morning for a week. There was not much improvement so he put it in a cast which I wore for a couple of weeks. Then feeling came back. Months later that same numbness started to return. I checked my watch band and saw that it was too tight. After loosening it, my arm felt normal again…. So I figured that I had worn my watch band too tight for about a week causing my circulation in that arm to stop. This caused the numbness. I have not had the occasion to return to the doctor to let him know what caused this condition. Now I am always careful to have my band extra loose each time I put it on. I really thought it was something serious. It was a great relief to learn the cause of this condition.” An aside note: With the birth of digital watches Sister became a genius at what each little knob controlled.
Here’s another glimpse into Sister’s quiet ability to laugh at herself. “One day I was changing my clothes during the day. I took off my glasses and lay them on the bed. After the change was made, I sat on the bed to put on my shoes. Immediately I knew that I had damaged my glasses by sitting on them. I am always so careful with my glasses for I cannot read without them anymore. I went to town that day and had them straightened. I was not charged for this service for which I was thankful.”
Sister’s loving attention to detail and patience with all – including machinery – her loyalty and spirit of self-giving stood her in good stead in her various ministries which included: teacher, principal, Community Subprioress for many years, Scholastic mistress (director of the young sisters); she served on the community Council and as a St. Leo Town commissioner; was community driver and driver-teacher … (bet she’d have some hairy tales to tell about those sessions!)
Sister took pleasure in carefully crafting newsy letters to friends and Sisters who were studying away from home … but she worked so painstakingly over the compositions she sometimes decided they were old news and not worth sending. That did not apply to THANK YOU notes – she wrote those the same day the gift was received. Some of us have among our souvenirs the Christmas thank you notes carefully penned Christmas afternoon on note pads Sister made with scrap ends she saved at the copy center. And we looked forward each Christmas to receiving the journal books (50 or so blank pages) with a decorative cover that she compiled for each one of us.
Sister enjoyed making music … over time, with knowledge of the keyboard on piano and organ, she taught herself to play the ukulele and harpsichord, and a variety of flute-like instruments from various countries. Our opening hymn (Amazing Grace) was one of her favorite harmonica tunes which she played til not long ago for Saint Leo University social work students and other visitors at Heritage Park.
Sister also observed carefully in her father’s barber shop – and later her brother Paul’s shop – where she learned hair clipping skills. Until a few years ago she kept many of us in “good shape” – often reminding us “looks like you could use a good trim.” She visited my mother at the nursing home in Lakeland to give snip her braids and give her, as my mother said, “an old lady’s chic cut.” When we wore the habit it was a custom on the night we received the veil (became a novice) for the superior to give the new Sisters a short haircut. Shortly before that day for me, Sister Mildred had given Sister Mary Grace a gift from her father: a pair of electric clippers. I suspect she stood cringing as she watch Sister’s first venture with her new gift. (I never knew how much I looked like my brother! Thank God, for my new veil to cover my buzz cut. )
Prior to being at St. Joseph School, Sister Mildred taught elementary grades in Jacksonville Beach, Sarasota and Ocala. And, as was quite normal in those days, Sisters went to night school and took weekend classes. Sister did precise work but with her teaching duties, taking her turns cooking and performing other household duties, as well as teaching weekend catechism classes, she was a bit of a procrastinator getting her college assignments done. Picture Sister Mildred – this is true – riding to her college class, wedged in the back seat of the car with a manual typewriter on her lap furiously typing the paper due in a few minutes. .
When Sister was assigned to St. Joseph School, she lived at monastery – which was across the highway on the location that is now Benedictine Hall. In addition, to her duties at St. Joe and ones I’ve already mentioned, Sister served in community as Scholastic Mistress (director of newer members in community), subbed occasionally as organist, helped in the citrus packing house, was community driver and driver instructor and taught weekend CCD classes. I recall many Sundays that Sister and I went to Floral City, enroute to dropping off two Sisters in Brooksville to conduct catechism and sacramental preparation classes. As a bonus, Sister Mildred challenged me (and herself) to memorize a psalm every week between Sundays. Since she was driving, I had the advantage because I could consult the mini black psalm book we used when she was stumped and asked me for a prompt.
In the Rule read earlier in this service, St. Benedict describes the good zeal which monastics ought to have. The kind of zeal manifested in the love and respect shown to one another in day to day living. He advices us to anticipate another’s need and to put aside our individual preferences for the sake of what is best for the community. It was evident to all who knew Sister Mildred that she took these words to heart and lived by them. She was known to be the first to volunteer when we needed extra dishwashers, or to drive someone to the doctor, to a store or to visit a friend.
(About this time Sister Mildred is probably trying to whisper to me: “Thank you, Sister – that’s quite enough now.”) What was great about Sister Mildred was not what she did but how she did it … giving of herself with cheerfulness and quiet joy. While residing at Heritage Park, asked if she needed anything, she’d often answer: “No, I am content.” I quote her here from her interview when she retired from Saint Leo University: I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve had at Saint Leo … I would like everyone to remember me as a helpful person who tried to meet your needs in a timely basis. I also want to be known as a religious person who was a friend to every person I met.”
That you did, Mildred, in splendid fashion! Now, like ET you can take off on your Honda 150 or your little red scooter to soar to the heights of heaven. Like ET said: “HOME!”