On June 20, a great woman by the name of Josephine entered the kingdom of God. I had the honor of knowing her for 45 years. She was the mother of four girls. Saying she was a strong Polish Catholic woman would be somewhat of an understatement. I am writing this as a tribute to her, but I also want to share her story of total devotion to her faith and family.
I came to meet her on a beautiful day in June as she celebrated her 25th anniversary with her soulmate, Jerome. This was a huge family gathering at their farmhouse just outside South Bend. Since I was dating their daughter and had yet to meet them, I was invited.
She was more than welcoming to me as she introduced me to family member after family member. She was clearly in charge as she directed the festivities. She was even kind enough to warn me about Jerome’s brother, Frank, whose goal was to intimidate me (for the record, he was successful). Two years later, I officially became part of this wonderful family as I married her second-born daughter, Barbara, at their local parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka, built in the middle of a cornfield.
Josephine was totally devoted to her husband. I could only smile as I overheard her tell her daughter and my newly wedded wife how she should be totally dedicated to our marriage and my happiness. Josephine was always a faithful Catholic. She prayed daily and for most of her life she prayed a daily rosary. The only time she would miss Mass was when it was impossible to navigate the country roads after a major South Bend snowstorm.
One of her greatest heartbreaks was losing her third daughter just days after her birth. God eventually blessed and surprised her with a fourth daughter at age 40. She not only prayed constantly during this pregnancy for a healthy baby, but that she would be born on the feast day of the Assumption of Mary. Yes, the baby was born Aug. 15.
Her biggest heartbreak and challenge in life was losing her husband, Jerome, when he was only 66 years old. She was indeed devastated. For years there were frequent tears during family gatherings and holidays. If Josephine teared up, invariably all her daughters would join in. She decided soon after her husband’s death that she would never seek the love of another man. She dedicated herself to her family and renewed her special dedication to Blessed Mother Mary.
Several years later, at the age of 70, she reported to me that she got short of breath while dancing the polka at a wedding celebration. I brought my stethoscope the very next time I visited her and heard a loud murmur consistent with severe aortic valve stenosis. Weeks later I had my cardiovascular surgical team replace her aortic valve. She was out of bed 24 hours later and ready for discharge from the hospital in just four days. A little open heart surgery was not going to slow this lady down!
It was traditional to have large family gatherings at her small farmhouse for Christmas and Easter. As she entered into her eighth decade of life, she continued to be the center of these gatherings. She would always offer a prayer of thanksgiving before the holiday meal and usually say she was getting too old to host the next one, but for many more years she did.
In one of the most selfless acts I have ever witnessed in my entire life, her oldest daughter retired early and left all her friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to move in with her on the farm. She announced she would take care of her mom so that she could continue to live in her home until her death — a promise she kept.
As Josephine turned 90 she continued to radiate beauty. She walked like a 40-year-old, helped put out a large garden each year and still went up a steep flight of stairs to retire for the night. Eventually age did catch up with her, and she began to have recurrent bouts of diverticulitis and lower GI bleeding. During one of her hospitalizations, at age 93, the doctors offered her surgery. It was no surprise to her loved ones that after thoughtful prayer she declined, saying that she was ready if God was.
At age 94 her health had been slowly declining, and she was hospitalized again for diverticulitis. After initial improvement, she suddenly deteriorated. The family mobilized, rushing to the hospital. My wife and I were the last to arrive, driving in from Fort Wayne to St. Joseph Hospital in Mishawaka. The room was filled with all her daughters and sons-in-law, multiple grandchildren and even three great-grandchildren. I am sure she felt the love in the room as she gave up her spirit just 30 minutes after all of us had arrived.
That same morning, she had gone to confession and received the anointing of the sick. This was a good death. She embraced her death the same way she embraced life. We will miss her. I have to smile as my mind wanders and I dream about how her first moments in heaven might be. She will praise and worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. She will then give thanks to holy Mary, to whom she was so dedicated throughout her life. Then, I believe, there will be great happiness and celebration as she runs into the arms of her Jerome and gets to embrace her third-born daughter, Annette, the one who preceded her in death as a baby.
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