With Srs. Kathleen Hepner and Mary Ann Farley, Fr. Richard Berg uses incense to bless the cremated remains of Holy Names Sr. Ellie Kratz Oct. 17 at Marylhurst. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
With Srs. Kathleen Hepner and Mary Ann Farley, Fr. Richard Berg uses incense to bless the cremated remains of Holy Names Sr. Ellie Kratz Oct. 17 at Marylhurst. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
MARYLHURST — On a table next to the cremated remains of Holy Names Sister Ellie Kratz sat the following objects: a vase of cheery sunflowers, the 8-inch-tall crucifix she had received at profession of vows 63 years before, a copy of those vows, a Bible, a quilt her mother had made from scraps of her father’s shirts, and a multi-colored cloth butterfly symbolizing Sister Ellie’s belief in new beginnings.

The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, who came to Oregon in the 1850s, serve all over the region as educators and parish leaders. But when they die, they are brought back to the same chapel steps where they professed vows as young women.

Immediately after death, the sisters bring what they call a passage quilt and place it over the body. The body then is reverently brought to a small prayer space at Mary’s Woods, where the sisters’ retirement center is located. The other sisters who live nearby come for a farewell prayer and then share memories. Along with Mary’s Woods staff, the sisters walk with the body to the car that will go to the funeral home. The surviving sisters always thank staff for the care they provided.

Each Holy Names sister’s funeral is held in the main chapel in the provincial house, the same place where vow ceremonies have taken place for more than a century. Funerals go according to the church’s funeral rites, but there is room for personal expression. Normally, the flowers are roses, in honor of Mother Marie Rose Durocher, who founded the community in 1843. But on Oct. 17, the chapel was full of sunflowers and an occasional butterfly decoration, since that is what Sister Ellie specified in her written funeral plan. She chose readings and music, including a prelude: Brahms’ famous lullaby in German. She also wrote the petitions, including this: “For all who loved me before I learned to love myself.”

A longtime teacher with family roots in Germany, Sister Ellie taught in North Portland, Newberg and The Dalles, making friends wherever she went.

“Our sisters’ funeral liturgies are special and unique to each person,” said Sister Susan Mitchell, who coordinates community life for retired sisters. “They bring us together as a community and fill us with deep gratitude for the amazing ways each sister’s life has blessed us and the world.”

Just before the funeral Mass, sisters, friends and family gather in a small side chapel to pray over the remains and share remembrances. On the wall, seemingly observing the proceedings, is a portrait of Mother Marie Rose.

A sister’s friends within the community play a major role in planning and ministering at her funeral. Sister Carol Lee, a woodworker, makes urns for sisters who choose to be cremated. Sister Ellie’s cremated remains were carried in procession by Sister Mary Ryan, who had taught with Sister Ellie at Assumption School in Portland. Sister Mary Ann Farley was an emcee by the side of the sisters’ chaplain, Holy Cross Father Richard Berg. Sisters Kathleen Kircher and Mary Anne Stowell were lectors. Sister Frances Wink gave a reflection, saying of her friend, “What a woman of faith.”

“So many people taught with them or had common experiences and loved them,” Sister Carole Strawn said of Holy Names funerals.

Outside the chapel, the friends arrange boards to display photos and memorabilia.

The homilies often have personal material because Father Berg sees so many of the sisters daily. For Sister Ellie, he recalled her resolve to live in the present moment.

After the funeral Mass, the body or cremated remains are taken across campus to the sisters’ cemetery. On this day, a small bus carries the urn and mourners to the gravesite, where each sister sprinkles the remains with holy water and offers a word of gratitude.

“We are here, Sister Ellie, to bless your ashes, but more importantly, your spirit,” said Sister Carole, who presided graveside.

At this point, the profession cross ordinarily is given to family, but because Sister Ellie’s only relatives live far away, a sister-friend received the memento.

As has been the case for a century, the sisters conclude by singing an “Ave Maria” over their dead loved one. On this autumn day, a breeze sent colorful leaves floating down during the sweet song.