It had been a long, hot afternoon with visits to nearly a dozen parishes. By the time I pulled up in front of St. Stephen Byzantine Cathedral in North Phoenix, I was thirsty, tired and a bit discouraged.
I tapped on the door to the office of Sr. Jean Marie Cihota, OSBM, and the next thing I knew, she was there, pulling me into her arms, welcoming me the way she welcomed everyone: “Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!” She never greeted anyone or began any correspondence without those iconic words. (Unless it was the Easter season, in which case “Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!” became her salutation.)
At about four feet, nine inches tall, Sr. Jean Marie was small in stature but huge in heart, a pint-sized ball of energy and love all rolled into one. With her sensible shoes and navy blue habit and veil, she was a constant public witness to religious life.
She had an amazing knack for drawing people in. The religious education director as well as the safe environment coordinator at St. Stephen’s, she was also charged with organizing the annual women’s retreat.
I’m not Byzantine, but for some reason, Sr. Jean Marie asked me to help. The retreat team met regularly throughout the year and Sister began every meeting with a prayer and hymn in front of an icon. She told us how her grandmother, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, held fast to faith in Christ, how “Baba” marked every loaf of bread with the sign of the cross before sliding it into the oven and wielded the hoe to trace a cross in the soil before planting the garden. We learned of the boyfriend Sister thought might pop “The Question,” but instead asked if she’d ever considered religious life. We heard about a dying friend who taught her the only real tragedy in life was to fail to do the will of God.
Each year, the retreat became an occasion to get to know Sister better. In my mind’s eye, I see her gripping the steering wheel, her transition lenses darkening in the glare of the Arizona sun, her feet barely reaching the gas pedal, a steady stream of “Wasn’t that beautiful? Wasn’t that glorious?” as she drove the grounds of the retreat center and raved about the sessions. She radiated joy and love and faith.
This past spring, I missed two team meetings. A few days later, I emailed Sister, playfully asking if I’d been fired from the team. A reply hit my inbox shortly thereafter: “Of course not! You can’t fire family!”
About a week later, a friend called and said that Sr. Jean Marie had slipped away. It was only last summer that the women on retreat had sung “God Grant Her Many Years” in celebration of Sister’s 60th anniversary as a religious. Little did we know our time with her was short. She’d recently confided to her Mother Superior that she felt her Bridegroom calling her home.
Sr. Jean Marie will never have a bio listed on Wikipedia or receive the Nobel Prize. She didn’t bequeath a multimillion-dollar inheritance or bask in the media’s limelight. Instead, she left something more powerful, more enduring.
At a time in which there are great divisions in society and even in the Church, she had a simple message, one she learned at the feet of Jesus: Love one another.
She did much for the Church, but will ultimately be remembered as a person who loved. In that mission, she was supremely successful and in doing so, she offers each of us an invitation.
Set aside your grievances. Love. Love the way Jesus loved: with every ounce of strength. Sr. Jean Marie’s witness is a challenge to each of us to love tenderly every single person we encounter and in doing so, live up to our calling as Christians.
Well done, Sister. Rest easy in the Bridegroom’s arms.