A Tribute to our Sr. Marie
Gifted with intelligence, humility, and a heart of gold, Sr. Marie of the Incarnation led an intriguing life as an Army Corps nurse during World War II before entering the convent.
A quiet sister whose death on March 25 at the age of 88 brought our community more feelings of gratefulness than sorrow, Sr. Marie continued her admirable life after entering our Carmel.
Catch a glimpse of her inner life and vocational story as she writes with her own hand the story of her exceptional life.
I, Sister Marie of the Incarnation, Lena Alice Watson, was born to Rowland and Clemmie Mintz Watson on October 17, 1919, the third of eight children. The oldest, Clemmie Carrie, died one week after birth, a “blue” baby. Mary, my second sister, was born two years after me. Charles is two years older. Then comes Lindsey, David, Robert, and Jim. My mother was forty-five when Jim was born and she often laughingly said that “he was born when others were retiring.” (Our farm was out of debt but Daddy would borrow money in the Spring to buy seed and fertilizers.)
When I was about eight years old my father sold our 65 acre farm to buy an 83 acre one. This was just before the 1929 depression. We had borrowed $3,000 to buy a larger farm. We could not pay the debt with the low prices of cotton and corn, etc., so we lost our farm and became “tenant” farmers. When I was in the Army Nursing Corps I sent most of my salary home to help buy another farm near Jacksonville. It had a beautiful little lake. When we were “tenant farmers,” we moved four times. I attended three high schools: Jacksonville, Ohatchee, and Oxford, were I graduated in 1939.
All of the family worked hard, especially during the summer and fall. After the corps were “laid by” we would reciprocate week-long visits with cousins, especially the children of my mother’s oldest brother. My chores were cleaning the house, milking the cows, doing garden and field work, especially hoeing cotton and corn—just helping wherever I could. (“Helping wherever I could” was very typical of Sister Marie.)
When my youngest brother was born, I stayed home one year to help Mama. This was in the eleventh grade so I was eighteen when I graduated from high school. My grades in school were always A’s until at Catholic University I made a C in French. I would stay up all night to work on projects or lessons. When I was four years old the one-room school teacher wanted my Mother to let me go to school but she waited until I was six. When I was two, my grandfather (Pinkley Mosely Watson) said I “would be a great woman.” I hope to be great in humility, and to be a saint.
Our great uncle was Tom Watson who helped Alexander Bell invent the telephone. My uncle David Weaver’s daughter married a Bell. Maybe it was the son of the inventor. I don’t remember the details. Uncle Dave would come to visit us each year to “wade in the creek” as he had done when a boy. He would bring us Bartlett pears.
Mama and Daddy read us stories when we were small. One was about a Brownie who went about doing good. So, I would make the beds, then hide. Mama would come in and say, “Oh, a Brownie has been here.” She read other stories like this one, and about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
The family was Baptist and when my sister Mary and I went up and sat on the bench in our Baptist Church in front of all to proclaim our faith, I experienced a strong realization of the presence of God, of being taken over, of being accepted. We were baptized together in Chocoloca Creek, August 14, 1936.
The fall after I graduated from high school, I entered St. Vincent’s Nursing School in Birmingham, Alabama. It was 1939. I graduated in the spring of 1942 as an R.N. but we stayed on until the fall to finish our studies. I had never seen a Sister or a Catholic building before. I was very much impressed by everything. The students would attend Mass and after some time I began to go to the 5:00 a.m. Mass with some of the Catholic girls. During the time I was a student, some Masses were attended by the whole student body in full dress—white uniforms and grayish blue capes. I realized there was a special Presence in the Chapel. (Sister Marie continued to be aware of this “special Presence” all through her Religious life.) I also went to the Stations of the Cross when they had them during Lent and I remember attending the “Last Words of Jesus” preached by a Passionist priest at St. Paul’s downtown Church one Lent.
Christmas was special there. Some friend gave the Sisters beautiful red roses for the Gothic altar. I think all the students went to Midnight Mass. I know I did. I still remember the Adeste Fidelis sung by a few.
The last Christmas that I was there I received the grace to want to ask for instructions in the Catholic Faith. Some time passed and no instructions. I asked again. Sister Mary Louise arranged for three or four other students who wanted more knowledge of their Faith to go with me for instructions once a week at the downtown church of St. Paul’s. The Passionist priest who came to teach us Ethics also taught Religion. The classes on Ethics were lessons on any morals that would concern nursing. In the library I found a little book that showed the Catholic Church as the true Church. During May we always had a procession with a statue of Our Blessed Mother. We would wear our white uniforms and grayish-blue capes. It was through these different experiences that I received the grace of Faith—the whole atmosphere, the Sisters. . . . I was completely open to all. I had no struggles over anything. The Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist drew me more than anything else, and continues to draw me.
I was instructed with four or five other student nurses who wanted to learn more about the Faith by Father Theodore Flynn and another priest at St. Paul’s in downtown Birmingham. He received me into the Church and baptized me conditionally on May 6, 1942. (This Church later burned and another was built but perhaps not at the same place.) My Godmother was Agnes Winters, a Catholic Student Nurse. There were only the three of us. I went to Confession and the next day, May 7, I received my First Holy Communion from Bishop Toolen at the Graduation Mass. The evening before, at a gathering of all the nurses and Sister Mary Louise, I was awarded a little medal for outstanding service as a Nurse. It had an inscription in Latin about labor and prayer. Father Kelly, the Chaplain, presented it. It had not been given for several years. It was a complete surprise to me. I gave the medal to Mama.
There was talk about the need of the Army Nursing Corps to recruit nurses, so I joined. I think it was at the end of 1942. In January of 1943 I was stationed at Fort McClellan very near our home. I stayed there for almost a year; then, with four or five friends, volunteered for overseas duty. We went to Fort Benning in Georgia for some training. From there we went by train (it was a Station Hospital Unit) to New Jersey. We were there for Christmas. Around the first of January we sailed on a French ship with a convoy by way of the North Sea. The trip was rough but I did not get sea-sick. We landed in Glasgow, Scotland and traveled by train to Chester, England. (This was in 1944.) As needed, we were sent to several hospitals: I worked in three. (Sister served in the Nursing Corps as First Lieutenant from 1942 to 1945.)
Before “D-Day” we visited London (I think it was a resort on the Channel) and other places. While in England, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland with nurse friends and visited Wales. My brother Charles, serving in the Army Air Corps, came to see me while we were in England.
After the war in Europe was over, my friends and I volunteered for service in the Pacific. We went to Marseille by plane and were there for a month or so. We visited Cannes. We sailed from Marseille around the beginning or middle of July because we were one month going across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, then across the Pacific. The war ended while we were on our way. It was on August 15th. We landed in Okinawa and were there until we sailed back to the States and landed at Seattle. From there we went by train down the coast through Washington, Oregon, upper California, Los Angeles, San Diego and on to San Antonio. In San Antonio I took the train to New Orleans and then to Anniston (Anniston, Alabama, Sister’s hometown). A nurse from Atlanta traveled with me. We were both “going home.” I walked from the road where the bus from Anniston to Jacksonville passed. Our “new farm” was probably one-half mile from there. I saw Mama working outside, probably feeding the chickens, and ran up to embrace her. . . . This was at the end of November.
While we were in Okinawa we experienced an 180 miles per hour typhoon. The nurses’ quarters were tents, so we were taken to some substantial Navy quarters. Near our quarters was a cave-like burial place. Our soldiers found some Japanese hiding there. Some of the prisoners worked around our quarters (digging). It probably was for a sewage system. (We had showers, etc.) The nurses worked on making bandages and other needs and sometimes helped at the Red Cross serve doughnuts and coffee to the servicemen. We were all waiting to go home.
On our way to Okinawa four or five of us nurses worked sanding the deck of the ship. We were about a month on board with a stop in a place surrounded by little islands. There were coral reefs and we ate the fresh coconut. We stopped a few days in the entrance to the Panama Canal and there we enjoyed some bananas. Going through the Canal we saw exotic colored birds and flowers. On our return, going into the Atlantic, we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.
England was very beautiful during summer. It was light until almost midnight, and the weather was delightful. From Malvern, where our well-equipped station hospital unit was on D-Day, we were able to visit all around England (those who were young enough). We went to a china place in Worstershire. They explained the process to us and showed us some of the employees making the china. But “D-Day” was the beginning of REAL WORK. Some of us bought Christmas gifts for each of our patients and I remember buying flowers for the wards in the spring.
We also visited Shakespeare’s home and saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (I think that was the name of the theater house there.) Also, we went boat riding on the Avon and missed our train but we got a jeep ride back home so were not AWOL. (The jeep was rather packed—about four or five nurses, plus the driver and another GI!)
Traveling back to the States, we sailed by ship to Seattle, Washington. The sea was rough at times but I never got seasick. I love the ocean. I think the trip took about eight days. My memory is vague about it.
I visited St. Vincent’s Hospital soon after I got home and told them I was planning to go to school. I had written to a school in New York City. The Sisters suggested that I go to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. So, I wrote to C.U. They were opening a nursing school program, including Public Health Nursing, so the semester after Christmas I started school there. This was in 1946. I was there until the end of the Spring Semester in 1948. (Sister Marie never made a grade below an A. She was named in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities and was awarded a medal for outstanding service as a nurse.) I only needed Field Work to receive a B.S. in Public Health Nursing. While going to school, I worked at a Doctors’ Hospital and also at two others. It was also in Washington that I met Annabelle Melville, the historian and author, at a small group studying the Liturgy with one of the Carmelite Fathers. We also attended some sessions with a teacher (I think an economist), boys and girls who were Veterans getting the world straight. Of course, these were not really classes. This group went to Emmitsburg one weekend.
While at Catholic U. I lived in the dormitory but after the first semester a friend, Billie Jenkins from Charleston, South Carolina, invited Kay Scharf and me to live with her and her mother who had come up to Washington and gotten a job working for the government. We did our own cooking—rather, the mother did most of it. The apartment was within walking distance from school and the Carmelites. The summer of my first semester I visited my sister Mary and her husband who lived in Wilmington, North Carolina and helped deliver her second child. The doctor was one I had worked with in our overseas hospital.
In the spring of 1948 several friends were talking about Carmel. I had been going to Mass at the Carmelite Fathers’ Monastery. I was also receiving spiritual direction there from a Carmelite Father who was an Austrian, Father Andrew of the Sacred Heart. He had come from Rome to the U.S. during the war. He offered to teach Billie Jenkins and me Catechism, so we went once a week for his instructions.
Father John of the Cross, when speaking with a group of us who were with Anne Phalan who was entering Carmel, turned to me and said: “What about you?” Truthfully, I had been thinking about the Medical Missionaries and visited their little, poor house near the University. There I met Mother Dengel, their Foundress.
So, “what about me?” I was given some books on Carmel by another nurse who was entering the Santa Fe Monastery. One was a history of Carmel. I also read A Rose Unpetaled. St. Therese and Holy Mother were both drawing me to Carmel.
Father McAllister, who taught Ethics, Logic and Criteriology (a specialized course in Logic) loved Carmel and encouraged me, so I wrote to New Orleans and they suggested I write to Lafayette. Mother Theresa Margaret, then Novice Mistress, answered and I treasured her letter but it was left in my purse when I gave up all belongings the day I entered and put on the brown cape dress.
September 3rd, the day I was leaving home to enter Carmel, I went to Mass at Sacred Heart Church. It was a First Friday. I was troubled and wondering if I should not go to Carmel but stay at home to help build a better house on our farm. Mama did not want me to go—she was not yet Catholic. I talked to Father Hargraves, the Pastor, after Mass. He asked me how many brothers and sisters I had. So I told him five brothers and one sister. He then told me to go on. One of the books given me by the nurse who entered the Santa Fe Monastery was a history of Carmel as well as a life of Holy Mother (St. Teresa of Jesus). I had read obedience was the way to act in troubled times or something like that. So I obeyed and was at peace. (Obedience was one of Sister Marie’s outstanding virtues.) Lindsey drove our car to the train station in Anniston. We stopped at the Calhoun Country Creamery and got ice cream. I came overnight and read a magazine Mother Theresa Margaret had sent me about Fatima. I had heard nothing before about Our Lady’s appearing there.
Coming into New Orleans, the train crawled. . . . It was early in the morning and at the Station I learned that the train was not going on. A hurricane had just passed through New Orleans. Telephone lines were down and I could not call Lafayette so I went to the bus station and got a bus for Lafayette, then a taxi to the Monastery. I arrived at recreation time, around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., September 4, 1948. The weather was beautiful after the storm—cool and clear.
This ends Sister Marie’s narrative.
Alice phoned from the Lafayette bus station to announce her arrival, then came by taxi to the Monastery (at that time a small house on College Avenue). The community of five was together for evening recreation in the cloister garden and there welcomed the tall, lovely newcomer. Her quiet, peaceful manner and beautiful smile endeared her to us at once. She immediately “fit in” and generously shared the difficulties of foundation years with the rest of the Sisters. Shortly after her arrival, she received word that her father died of a heart attack. He had gone for a walk and was found lying under a pine tree near the edge of the lake on their property. Rather than return home for the funeral, Alice preferred to remain in the Monastery to pray for him and the family.
Alice completed her required six months of postulancy and on March 25, 1949, feast of the Incarnation, was clothed in the Habit of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and given the religious name of Sister Marie of the Incarnation. (Her sister, Mary, who followed Sister Marie into the Church, received her First Holy Communion at this Clothing Mass. Later, her mother and brother Jim also entered the Church.) Sister Marie made First Vows May 31, 1950. At the time, it was the feast of Mary, Mediatrix of all Grace, to whom the Monastery is dedicated. She made simple Perpetual Vows May 31, 1953 and Solemn Vows with the Community on November 21, 1957. The marvelous blend of the compassionate nurse and fearless soldier was the ideal soil in which the spirituality and doctrine of Carmel could take root and blossom in the generous, open heart of our Sister.
Soon after her Clothing in the Religious Habit, Sister Marie discerned the need of a cook and requested to be a “Lay Sister” (without the obligation of the Divine Office) so that she would have more time to serve. This must have been a special sacrifice for her because she so loved the Liturgy (a book that became a life companion was Dom Marmion’s Christ is His Mysteries). Her request was granted and utilizing all her devotion and skill, Sister Marie soon became “Queen of Cooks” (as we affectionately called her). Her genuine contemplative spirit, generous heart and self-effacement were leading her constantly deeper into the great mystery of God and the presence of Our Lady. Sister’s quiet, prayerful demeanor was an inspiration to all in the Community. She gave herself wholeheartedly to any Community need but always maintained her beautiful, recollected manner. Just looking at her, one knew immediately where her heart was. . . . All that Sister did began in Jesus and Mary, and ended in them.
When Pope Paul VI declared Mary Mother of the Church, Sister had written on the back of an image of Our Lady: “Mother of Grace, Mother of the Church, Mother of the Renewal—My Mother, loveliest of the Anawim, Spiritual Vessel, open to God to receive for others, make me like you. Let me share your ‘stillness of soul and docility of heart’ so that God’s will be done in me and through me. I love my Mother, the Church and all her children.”
Once, during a recreation discussion on faith in St. John of the Cross, (that faith is as a dark night to the soul because we believe the truths of faith on the Word of God without understanding these great revealed Mysteries), Sister Marie declared with strong conviction: “My faith is certain” . . . and the complete surrender of her life to the Divine truths of faith proved her statement.
After the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), when the Church requested that Religious Orders no longer make the distinction between Choir and Lay Sisters (“Lay Sisters” did not have a voice in the discussions at Community meetings or votes and substituted recitation of a number of “Our Fathers” for the Canonical Divine Office), Sister Marie wrote a note to the Prioress: “For me, the graces I have always received attract me to our vocation as it is. I believe it is a light of the wisdom not of this world to seek a treasure hidden from what we would naturally think. No one would think of putting and keeping others in the lowest place, but why not leave an opportunity for it to be freely chosen?” The joy and peace she manifested and the spirit of prayer which radiated from her confirmed the truth of her conviction. She was exemplary in everything.
When Sister finished her work in the kitchen, she made a “bee-line” to our chapel in the cloister to refill on her love and service after the example of Jesus Himself who often withdrew from the busyness of His ministry to be in full communion with His Father. It was the same for Sister Marie. She loved to be with her hidden Lord in the Eucharist. To make it easier for her to spend prolonged periods before the Blessed Sacrament in her later years, the Community provided Sister with a large, comfortable armchair.
As her health deteriorated and scoliosis gradually bent her tall, graceful body forward, Sister could no longer lift the heavy pots to the stove and switched to preparing salads. She washed the lettuce and other greens with such care and unction and arranged the salad bowls so attractively we knew she considered that the Lord Himself was coming to dinner. All that she did, she did with love and care . . . and with much prayer.
Sister Marie was extremely neat. As her health declined and different Sisters cleaned her room to save Sister from this duty, they said there was nothing to clean. All reflected Our Lady’s care for that Carmelite sanctuary where Carmelites are called “to meditate day and night on the Lord of the Law.” Sister’s law of life and love was “bare necessities.” She did not accumulate “treasures” but rather dispossessed herself all along the way. After Sister’s death, we marveled at her genuine poverty of spirit. She left us a testimony that truly “God alone suffices.”
Early in her religious life a young Carmelite Father, with whom the Community bonded through correspondence and prayer, introduced us to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Mary, Compared to the Air We Breathe.” This image captured Sister Marie’s heart and the poem became her source of inspiration and the means for an ever deeper union with Our Lady. She wanted it typed and laminated to prevent it from being damaged by water. It was always beside her, whether she was cooking, preparing vegetables or salads. Mary was the air Sister Marie breathed and shared with us. No wonder there was always a lovely smile on her face, reflecting her inner joy, reflecting Mary. That gracious smile and an ardent “God reward you” was the precious reward all received who assisted Sister in any way. And, as she grew older, there were many opportunities.
On May 28, 2000, Sister Marie celebrated her Golden Jubilee of Religious Vows. Her special anniversary Mass had a “military” flavor to it. Not only were the American and Papal flags carried in the procession, but four active army personnel participated. Included in the Offertory procession were memorabilia relevant to Sister’s military service in World War II. One was a framed picture of General Eisenhower encouraging troops before D-Day; another was a commemorative booklet of World War II nurses. A Military Officer read the Prayers of the Faithful. A letter of congratulations from chief of military chaplains, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, was also read. At that time Sister Marie declared: “It is a great privilege to be able to spend my life in prayer and sacrifice for the Church and the world at this particular time in the history of salvation.”
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Sister Marie seemed to be in good health and was very faithful to her duties so the suddenness of her illness took us by surprise. At the beginning of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, March 16, 2008, Sister manifested extreme weakness and was unable to participate in the liturgical procession with the Community but remained at her place in the nun’s chapel. Monday she did not have the strength to rise from bed and the Eucharist was taken to her. A loving, open, trusting heart welcomed Him. . . . We could not contact Sister’s heart specialist who was out of town but the doctor “on call” graciously came to the Monastery. He prescribed medication and ordered complete bed rest.
Tuesday, a nurse friend visited and immediately called an ambulance. Sister Marie was experiencing heart failure. She remained at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital for one week where everything possible was done to save her life. Her friendliness and gracious, grateful smile impressed all who cared for her. We phoned her sister, Mary, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, to inform her that Sister Marie was failing. Mary came immediately accompanied by her son, Kent. Their brother Robert and Chuck (son of their brother Charles) joined Mary and Kent. At least one Sister from the Community was always at the hospital with Sister Marie but on Good Friday, when it looked as if she would share the Passover with her Spouse and that day be with Him in Paradise, all went out to the hospital and stood at the foot of her Cross. (Several friends offered their services at this time and there was always someone ready to drive to the hospital or back.) However, the Bridegroom asked her to wait a little while longer.
Again, on Easter Sunday, since Sister could not be home with us to celebrate the great Paschal Mystery, we all went out to her. On seeing Mother Regina, Sister Marie took her hands and grasped them firmly. Then she audibly renewed her Vows for the last time, her final gift to Christ and the Church. Sister’s extraordinary fidelity in living those Vows made them a very precious gift.
The Community lovingly surrounded Sister and she radiated Easter joy and appreciation at seeing us. She smiled and warmly took our hands. When we left, Mother Regina remained at the hospital with her and, aware that there was no hope of recovery, asked: “Sister, are you going anywhere today? The Sisters will be upset if you leave without telling us.” Smiling, she shook her head “no.” (She knew what Mother meant.) “Don’t you think you should come home to be with us?” Mother asked. “Oh yes,” Sister Marie responded with a smile, “and then I will take my flight!” And so she did. . . .
On Easter Tuesday, March 25th, the feast of the Incarnation and the anniversary of Sister Marie’s clothing in the religious habit, Mother Regina asked: “Is Jesus coming for you today?” She nodded “yes.” Her calm, her peace, her self-assurance were the fruits of her life-long abandonment to Him “whom her heart loved.”
We brought her home that day in an ambulance. She arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon and was settled in the Infirmary. Sister graciously thanked the ambulance attendants as they left the room and the Community surrounded her in welcome. Fifteen minutes later (at 4:45 p.m.), Sister Marie triumphantly took her flight. There was no struggle. It was so typical of her—simple and beautiful. She was lucid to the end.
Just moments before Sister “took her flight,” she asked Mother Regina to read the concluding verse of her favorite poem one more time.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin
Above me, round me lie Fronting my forward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.
*The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe (last verse)
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If Sister Marie’s life was simple, her funeral was not. Sister was buried with full Christian and military honors. Both the Chapel and Reception Room were packed and overflowing. Our devoted Bishop Michael Jarrell was main celebrant for the glorious Mass of the Day, Easter Saturday, which included the hymn of triumph—Glory to God in the Highest. Five priests concelebrated with the Bishop. Among them was our Provincial, Very Reverend Gregory Ross, O.C.D. Monsignor H. A. Larroque, V.G., Chaplain to the Monastery, gave the homily. He noted that in her youth Sister brought loving care and consolation to those whose lives were ravaged by war and that she continued this mission to God’s People, especially for the Church of Lafayette, by her life of prayer and service in the Monastery. “Sister Marie was very conscious of this mission entrusted to her by her Carmelite vocation,” he said. The Mass hymns for the glorious Easter week Liturgy were enhanced by two flutes, a clarinet and a trumpet. Before the recessional all present joined in to sing verse four of “America, the Beautiful” as a tribute to our World War II Veteran and Sister.
Lift high the Cross, unfurl the flag:
May they forever stand
United in our hearts and hopes,
God and our native land.
May God thy love increase,
Till wars are past and earth at last,
May follow Christ in peace.
At the graveside within the cloister, the beautiful, consoling prayers of the Christian Liturgy for burial were offered by Father Gregory. Local members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, proudly wearing their uniforms, provided a gun salute; the military burial anthem, “Taps,” was played; Sister was saluted by an active duty honor guard from Fort Polk near Alexandria (including a young woman officer). They reverently lifted the flag from the coffin, ceremoniously folded it and handed it to Sister’s brother, Robert, also a Veteran. The Community sang the Salve Regina.