Monday, April 7, 2008

Rest in Peace, Sister Justilla

Last Thursday I attended the funeral of Sr. Mary Justilla Podgorski, with whom I worked at Good Counsel High School in Chicago from 2000 until it closed in 2003. She was 90 years old.

From the first time we met in August of 2000, she and I had a great friendship. It was my first year teaching—and, in fact, my first job out of college—and Sister Justilla went out of her way to befriend me and to make me feel welcome at GC, which had been run since 1927 by her order, the Felician Sisters.

Her willingness to go out of her way to make me as a new teacher feel welcome was owed not only to her warm personality, of course, but also no doubt to her years of experience as a principal, having previously welcomed hundreds of teachers into a school community.

One of the first few days of teacher in-services, prior to the start of the actual school year itself, Sister Justilla invited me to visit the Felicians’ Chicago Province Motherhouse (where she lived) next door to the school, where she introduced me to many of the other sisters, and showed me around their chapel, taking the time to explain the scenes depicted in its beautiful stained-glass windows.

She invited me to come there for Mass one Sunday, which Jocelyn and I (we were newly engaged at the time) did shortly thereafter, after which she insisted we stay for lunch—which we gladly did.

By the time I met her, she had been retired from teaching/administrative duties for some time, but in her eighties still had the full-time job of running the attendance office, which she did with all the diligence you would expect from a nun who was sharp as a tack.

When it was announced in the fall of 2002 that Good Counsel would be closing at the end of the school year, the students were crushed. But so too—perhaps even more so—were the Felician Sisters.

Jocelyn and I kept in touch with Sister Justilla periodically after the school closed, and she told me on more than one occasion, “When GC closed, my health did, too.”

Despite a series of health problems these past few years, however, she always maintained a cheerful disposition. She especially loved to hear how our kids were doing, and always told us how precious they are. Often when she called, it was to tell us she had “a little something” for the kids, which gave me a chance to stop by and see her. The last time I saw her was last October 31, as she had some Halloween candy she wanted to give them.

Jocelyn and I spoke with her over the phone at least once or twice since then, and a few weeks ago she sent us an Easter card. We had been meaning to call her to thank her the card—in fact, on the whiteboard on our fridge was a note saying, “Call Sr. Justilla”—but we never got a chance to speak with her again.

In one of those “There really is no such thing as a coincidence” sort of ways, Jocelyn tried calling Sister Justilla Thursday morning around 9:40, but when she reached the convent and tried the extension for her room, the automated system said the extension was invalid.

She then tried the reception desk. When she asked for Sister Justilla, the receptionist, taken rather aback, said she had died, and that her funeral was about to begin at 10:00.

Jocelyn called me at work to tell me, and although I was by no means dressed in what I would consider proper funeral attire, I had to go.

Thankfully, the office where I now work is only about a mile from Felicians’ Motherhouse, so I made it in time to pay my last respects before her casket was closed.

Three priests offered the funeral Mass, the main celebrant having been a third-grade pupil of Sister Justilla’s six decades ago (he had recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination—at a Mass Sister Justilla had herself attended).

The opening song was “Let the Holy Anthem Rise”, the third verse of which I had never paid much attention to theretofore, but now realize how fitting it is for a Mass of Christian Burial:

Alleluia! Alleluia!
Blessed Jesus make us rise,
From the life of this corruption
To the life that never dies.
May your glory be our portion,
When the days of time are past,
And the dead shall be awakened
By the trumpet's mighty blast.

Please pray for Sister Justilla.

Requiem æternam dona ea, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ea.

Requiescat in pace. Amen.


Lori Gerten said...

I am sorry for your loss. There are amazing people in this world and it's hard to lose one.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about my principal from grade school (Sacred Heart of Jesus)today. Her name was Sister Justilla. Could this be the same woman? I attend in the 80's. The school closed in 1990 and I don't know where everyone went after that, but I'd really like to know.

John Jansen said...


Where was your school located?