A Funeral Homily
HOMILY: Fearless Girl, Wise Woman, Beloved Sister
Yesterday I sat at home, pondering the loss of the senior member of this parish and the senior resident of this town when a volume on the bookshelf caught my eye. On its spine was the title Fearless Girls, Wise Women, Beloved Sisters. I took the book from the shelf and noticed the subtitle on the front cover, Heroines in Folktales from Around the World. As I flipped through the extensive table of contents, I noticed sections devoted to tales from Europe, North and South America, Asia, the Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.
On that morning, however, I suppose the section I wanted to find was stories from Montgomery County, Maryland, believing that this collection might contain a true tale, the story of Mary Fyffe Chiswell and the town of Poolesville. For it seems to me that Mary measured up to the title of that book. Over the course of her long life, she proved to be a fearless girl, a wise woman, and a beloved sister.
As we remember Mary, we would do well to look back past recent decades to her early years, a time that few if any of us here can remember for ourselves. When travel was not as ordinary as it is now, and when higher education was not as available as now, Mary headed off at a young age to college to follow the example of her teachers and become a teacher herself. She crammed two years of study into one and soon was back in this area, no longer a student here, but a teacher. She left a fearless girl; she returned a fearless woman.
Starting the year after World War I ended, and continuing through the year after John Kennedy died, Mary Chiswell taught school, first in Darnestown, then back in Poolesville. Much of her forty-five years as a teacher were spent in this community among second graders. Some of you here today were perhaps her pupils, or perhaps your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents sat at those little desks with Mary Chiswell at the front of the room. And if you've ever taught elementary school, if you've ever raised young children, if you were ever a child yourself, then perhaps you can realize it takes a certain fearlessness to appear day after day in front of a room of more than twenty second graders as their teacher.
So there was something fearless about Mary. She was also a wise woman. Many of you knew her for decades and are more aware of this wisdom than I am. Since I came to Poolesville, my time as Mary's pastor has amounted to only six-tenths of one percent of her life here at St. Peter's. Yet even in the brief opportunity I had, it was easy to recognize in Mary a wisdom that showed itself in such characteristics as simplicity, joy, and acceptance of other people.
Something I've learned in the ordained ministry is that while it's the prerogative of a priest or bishop to give a blessing at certain points in public worship, there are other people who bestow a blessing in the ordinary course of life. Often they do so simply by showing up.
Mary Chiswell was such a person in later years. She bestowed a blessing simply by showing up among the people of this congregation, the citizens of this community, and her numerous friends and former students. By her manner of life she demonstrated that the later decades need not be an anti-climax, but can be lived as a fine fruition of what went before. She gave to all of us younger people the hope and desire that we might grow old as gracefully as she did.
A couple years ago, I am told, the rector of St. Peter's hosted small gatherings of parishioners to strengthen the ties among members of this church. On one such occasion, each person took a turn saying how long he or she had been a member here. The first person said he'd been here thirty-one years. A true pillar of the church. A woman then said she'd been at St. Peter seventy-some years. Lengthy commitment, still going strong. Then it was Mary Chiswell's turn. With a gentle smile she responded, "I've been a member of St. Peter's for a hundred and two years." Certainly in a class by herself!
The psalm used in today's service as well as most of the hymns are recommendations that Mary made for this occasion. More than a century as a Christian no doubt caused the language of the Psalter, the Hymnal, the Prayer Book––the language of worship––to soak into her soul and shape her life and conduct in ways past the power of human speech to describe. This beloved sister in Christ has left us to join a choir far greater than any to be heard here, and she has gone forth with a heart ready and well prepared.
• Copyright 2008, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.