Portrait of a Great Lady

December 5, 2019

by Dave Vander Meulen

Read time 2 mins 40 seconds...

I have been asked to speak about Mother Irene and the wonderful example she set for all of us, specifically about her life of service and her humility. Irene and the other sisters of St. Anne’s took up the challenge of caring for children who were afflicted with polio, a disease that ravaged the bodies of young children, often crippling their limbs. In the old black and white pictures, you will notice that many of the children wore braces on their legs so that they could stand. Others had to be pushed in wheelchairs. Sometimes it paralyzed the muscles in their chests, making it impossible for them to breathe on their own. Imagine for a minute what that must have been like. Imagine the fear that these children felt. Mother Irene and and her fellow sisters knew how hard their mission would be, but they were a very determined band of sisters. They rolled up their sleeves and applied themselves to the task, doing whatever they could to help these children regain their strength. This meant giving them massages, applying warm compresses, moving their legs to keep their muscles active, and much more. Perhaps the greatest gifts the sisters provided were love and hope. They were telling these children, “You may be suffering from this disease, but you still matter. You are precious in the eyes of God, and we work for Him.”When the medical battle against polio was won through the development of a vaccine, the entire country breathed a huge sigh of relief. I think the sisters probably felt as though a tremendous burden had been lifted from their shoulders, but they were not finished with their mission. Mother Noel told Sister Irene that she had another job for her. We need to start a school. No time to sit here congratulating ourselves — there’s work to be done. Sister Irene did not say, “Wait a minute, Mother Noel. You can’t just do that. You need money, supporters, and consultants.” No, she took on this new mission without flinching for a moment. It was a rather humble beginning; it did not make the front pages of the Denver Post in 1950.

Curiously, that is the year I was born, halfway across the country in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I was two, my father moved his young family out to Denver, taking up residence quite close to St. Anne’s. I used to play in the fields right across the street from the school, catching horned toads to take home and show Mom. I also would stare at the sisters as they walked around the gardens in their gray habits, unsure as to what they were all about. I sometimes wonder if Mother Irene saw the little blond kid playing across the street. Twenty-two years later I walked onto the grounds and applied for a teaching job. I also met Mother Irene for the first time. She welcomed me with a gracious smile, and that was the beginning of a warm friendship that spanned two decades. Mother took me under her wing and helped me learn about teaching. She provided books and articles as well as sage advice. We often talked about gardening, books, baseball, and a multitude of other topics. She would chuckle when I told her about the escapades of my two young boys.

The last time I saw Mother Irene she was hospitalized, and her health was failing fast. I walked into her room at Porter Hospital, and she greeted me with her beaming smile, as if to say, “It’s all right, David, I’m going home.” And we had our last chat.

Mother Irene was a tiny, modest lady who had a monumental impact on many lives. She certainly affected mine in a profound way, showing me what it means to let your light shine. I feel blessed beyond measure to have walked at her side for a time in the gardens. And the gray habit she once wore in all humility is now become a radiant robe.