A Story of Fostering Connection: Holy Cross and St. Mary Health Care Center – Will McAvoy ’20

Having started visiting with a resident at the St. Mary Center in the Fall of 2016, I feel as if my time at St. Mary has come full circle.  I began talking with my first resident, Commander Cliff, as a young freshman in Naval ROTC until he passed. Now as a senior with commissioning around the corner, I have reflected even further on our experiences together. Similarly, I have spent time reflecting on all of the unique experiences that I have had with other residents like Sister Ellen and Vicky. To all of the residents of the St. Mary Center, I thank you for what you have taught me and am excited to keep these experiences in my mind as I go forth.

On the 29th of January, I had the honor and privilege to give a talk in Rehm Library with Julia D’Ambrosio ’20 about my experience at St. Mary. Below is an excerpt from that speech reflecting on my time with Sister Ellen and Vicky.

Near the beginning of my Spring semester sophomore year, I ended up spending several months visiting with a nun named Sister Ellen who had been at St. Mary for nearly a decade.  She was well known among the staff and the residents at the center.  Sandy thought that we both would be a good match as she was a career biologist, having received several master’s degrees in several different subspecialties, including an honorary degree from Holy Cross!  I was excited to visit with her and selfishly was excited for the potential of a tutor for my biology classes.

In my first visit, it was clear that she was someone special.  On that first day, Sister Ellen explained her obsession with birthday cards and solicited my help.  Each month, she took the time to handwrite a birthday card to every resident whose birthday was coming up.  She always used to say that everyone deserved something on their birthday and this card was her gift.  Unfortunately, her health had continued to decline, and she was unable to write these cards.  When she asked if I could help, I happily accepted.  She was so joyed to hear that I could help her write the cards.  From then on out, every fourth visit or so consisted of writing birthday cards.  “Happy Birthday from your friends at St. Mary.”  I can still hear her saying it in my head after I wrote the next card.  “Your friends at St. Mary”.  In further reflection on that iconic birthday card message, you can see how she embodied her faith as well as the culture of St. Mary.  The center is truly a special place, and I was thankful to be a part of it.

At one point, I mentioned my experiences with Sister Ellen and how kind she was to me each week to my girlfriend, Megan Treanor.  She asked if she could tag along for a trip to St. Mary to experience what I got to do each week, simply sitting and talking with Sister Ellen.  This seemingly one-time trip continued for several months.  Megan and I had a blast visiting with Sister Ellen every Friday afternoon pictured here on the left; a symbolic end to the week.

Throughout our visits over several months, Sister Ellen’s passion for gardening began to show. She always had a plant in the room and loved to reflect on it, often discussing how her passion for gardening launched her into a career as a biologist. She spoke that she would love to garden again one day but was confined to a wheelchair and could no longer reach the garden beds. One day at the side of Sister Ellen’s bed, Megan and I discussed the possibility of building a garden that all residents would be able to use. Sister Ellen was pumped.

After a few Google searches, we found that elevated garden beds with an emphasis on wheelchair accessibility were available for purchase. This launched us into an application for another Marshall Grant. A few weeks later, we heard back from the Marshall Grant Committee with the approval as well as an important connection. In the Committee’s decision letter, there was a recommendation to get in touch with Professor Stephanie Crist, a Sociology professor on campus… She was a board member of the Worcester REC, a local nonprofit that helps out community gardens.  She discussed the process of gaining credentials as an official community garden and what benefits that would provide. This included access to compost, saplings grown in the Holy Cross greenhouse right behind me, and invaluable information for the novice gardeners that Megan and I were throughout our younger years… During this time of preparing for the inaugural season, however, Sister Ellen passed away.  We were sad that she was never able to experience that garden but are confident that she is upstairs giving us some good sun every day to let the garden grow.  She remains an inspiration to us every time that we go out to the garden.

The garden has been a success at St. Mary even gaining some publicity within the local Catholic Church.  Residents, their families, and Holy Cross students have benefited from spending time at this garden, seeing the flowers, smelling the herbs, and getting their hands dirty. I now visit with a resident named Vicky pictured here in a tie-dye shirt, and she truly is the brains behind the garden with Sandy’s help. When it became warm enough outside, Vicky proved invaluable at planning the garden. She provided insight not only to me, but also to other residents and students on what growths to trim, what plants need more water, and when to harvest the food.  Her years of gardening were essential to the garden’s success. Without her, I wouldn’t be as skilled of a gardener.

I felt accomplished knowing that Megan and I had successfully implemented a new activity at St. Mary that I knew would be there for years to come. I also took comfort knowing that Vicky would be there, at the ready to pull weeds, plant the saplings, and water the flowers.  Several residents mentioned to me that from this garden, they now have a purpose. I felt honored to play my part in that.

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