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80 years a nun: My aunt prepared for her final journey with love and hope

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 28
  • Published January 28

When I was a child, unencumbered by the laws of abbreviation, I wrote letters to my aunt, a Catholic nun, and addressed them to "St. Elizabeth."

She thanked me for the promotion, but said she was not in the running for sainthood.

I have always had my doubts.

On Thursday morning in a nursing home in Framingham, Massachusetts,  she died at 97, at peace with the world and ready to meet her God.

She was my mother's only sister, born Margaret Costello on Dec. 29, 1919, on the West Side of Manhattan. We knew her as Aunt Peggy, though when she became a nun she chose the name Elizabeth to honor her mother.

"She is such a beautiful soul," my daughter Anne wrote. "The most important thing is we were able to know and love someone this incredible in our lifetime. Consider just how amazing it is that she can make everyone feel so equally special and loved."

My mother, Ann, right, and my Aunt Peggy before she had taken her final vows to become a nun. (Courtesy Dermot Cole)

In early December I visited my Aunt Peggy with my brothers and sisters and cousins. We all knew death was close by. She said she had no fear. God had always taken good care of her and she looked forward to meeting the dearly departed.

"Wherever I am, I will be praying for you," she said.  "I just love all of you kids, you're super-duper."

When we told her that we loved her, she said the beautiful thing is that it had never been one-sided. "You're the best family in the world," she said.

With only a handful of us in the room, we realized she was speaking of an extended family in the U.S. and Ireland that would fill an auditorium.

Asked many times how she had managed to keep such a boisterous conglomeration in contact, she would say it wasn't virtue or intelligence, but a gift from God.

She died one week short of what would have been the 80th anniversary of her entrance into religious life on Feb. 2, 1937, when she was 17.

Peggy said she had never planned on becoming a nun, referring to herself as a "wild girl" and a mischievous character, who ran with a group called the "green sweater girls" as a teenager.

She said she did not like nuns because the sister who taught her in the Catholic version of Sunday school was unpleasant.

That began to change only when two nuns from a new order founded in 1929, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, began stopping by the Costello house, while on their regular neighborhood rounds, begging for support.

My family was not wealthy, but my grandmother always invited the two nuns inside for tea and a snack, which is how they became acquainted with Peggy.

At 16, she began visiting St. Patrick's Home and met more of the sisters, but "I had no intention of entering."

She made repeated visits and met Mother Angeline Teresa, the dynamic leader who founded the order because she believed the elderly deserved better care.

After a while, she said, she realized the Carmelites were helping people and "I also wanted to do it."

Her parents, Irish immigrants as young adults, thought she was too young to leave home, but would not stand in her way. Her father cried bitterly, and he gave her a dime to hide in one of her shoes, reminding her she was just a subway ride away.

"If they do anything to you, you come straight home," he told her.

She never found reason to reach for the dime.

"I guess I liked sisters after all," my aunt wrote a few years back of her journey to the Carmelites.

Her connection to the Carmelites and her family grew stronger over the years and she was able to care for her parents in their final days, thanks to Mother Angeline.

In my life, she was a lifesaver many times over. After my mom died in 1962 from cancer, leaving six children ages 6 to 12,  she helped us survive a difficult period that left none of us unscathed.

Among her many talents, was her great ability to listen. And every day of her life, she prayed for everyone in her family, and many others she had never met.

I have no idea how many thousands of the elderly she counseled in the final hours of their lives since the 1930s and how many families she consoled during times of crisis at nursing homes she was assigned to in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Connecticut. She was a peaceful, calming presence to all she served, one of her Carmelite sisters said.

She would still tell people, when the subject came up, that she worked with "old people."

This was at a time when most of the "old people" she visited with were younger than she was.

We are lucky to have had such good company for so long.

"I love my family. I was heartbroken at each of their departures. I just had to keep you close," she once told a big group of us. "So you filled me up. You put me on the road, just like my dad did when he gave me that dime in my shoe."

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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