Nancy Cavanaugh, CSJ

We remember her in the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter

July 30, 1938 – January 24, 2019

Nancy will continue to be a wonderful presence in her family’s lives.  Growing up Irish Catholic in South Boston, being the middle child with 2 older and 2 younger brothers, living in the same neighborhood as her grandparents, lots of aunts, uncles, cousins and other large families, Nancy was always surrounded by people, commotion, and activity. She had to be tough being the only girl with her brothers and mostly all male cousins from around the corner.  However, she was also sweet and developed a good sense of humor, justice, fairness, community and love of God. Her mother was a wonderful singer and her father could play the piano by ear.  I suspect that her love of music stemmed from their example. She participated in the church choir at the Gate of Heaven where she was also a very good basketball player (which must have been chaotic because at the time girls where only allowed to play half court).

Nancy dated (and I believe was proposed to) but she had a different calling. When my father came home from the Marines, he found out that Nancy was entering the order of The Sisters of Saint Joseph.  A great choice as that was the order that taught at the Gate and Saint Joseph held a special place in our family…Nancy had 4 uncle Joes, an Aunt Josephine, 2 cousins Joe, and her mother’s middle name was Josephine…I’m sure that I am missing some in the count. The song says happiness is a boy named Joe; and, Nancy was happy to join the order of St Joseph.  My father was not so pleased. They always had a special relationship. As Nancy became Sister Marie Lawrence, my Dad was not going to be able to see his sister very much.  There were rules about visiting family; and, nuns had to travel in pairs…which is how we came to adopt Sister Loretto Marie (aka Sister Anne Nolan).

Nancy and Anne were as thick as thieves (can I say that about nuns?). Hollywood had Martin & Lewis, Hope & Crosby, Lucy & Ethel…We had Nancy and Anne.  They were wonderful friends and so much fun.  Are you as confused about the names as I was when I was little?  My Aunt Nancy was baptized Ann; because, Nancy wasn’t a saint’s name, but then she was Sister Marie Lawrence with a friend Sister Loretto Marie who was also baptized Anne and who we called Sister Anne. It was all so confusing but it was a glorious day when they came to visit.

As a child, I remember going to the convent and seeing Aunt Nancy wearing a full habit.  She was always so cheerful and bubbly. I remember thinking that she should be on TV like the singing nuns. Perhaps it was her singing, and maybe her attitude, but she also reminded me of Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins is my Aunt Nancy. Both creating magic and bringing family together. Controlled visits at the convent could be a challenge and hopefully didn’t bring too much trouble to Nancy like the time when the mother superior entered the visiting parlor and was surprised to see my Dad and Nancy in the middle of a push up competition. Structure and protocol should not hinder having fun.

Then Vatican 2… Yahoo… Nancy was able to leave the habit behind and shared an apartment in Brighton with Anne and other fabulous nuns.  We saw a lot more of her as did the rest of the family. In addition to teaching and volunteering her time for the order and for the community, she also visited with her aunts and uncles, attended weddings and baptisms, baby sat for my cousins, came back to Southie during St Patrick’s Day, attended my first communion, sponsored me at my confirmation, sang at my and my sister’s weddings, sang at my parent’s 50th anniversary (she was not allowed to attend their wedding), and helped make all of our birthdays and holidays so special with her presence. 

She volunteered her time at Bethany, too. She attended retreats and served at the Cohasset retreat house.  Nancy participated in a few Sister of Saint Joseph concerts where at one, appropriately for her, sang “Felice Navidad”. She also wrote and performed some original songs which she put on a cd. Nancy was always on the go.  She received her degree at Fairfield University and became the principal at where else???…St Joseph’s in Needham where she formed another great lasting friendship with Sister Mary Ann Connolly (We could never fully express our gratitude to Mary Ann for all her kindness and selfless dedication to Nancy).

My aunt was there for the tough times, too, including the loss of loved ones.  She prayed and solicited prayers for my dad during illnesses. She recommended someone for me to talk with when I was going through a difficult time in my marriage.  Perhaps one of my favorite memories was after losing a job around Christmastime and attending Christmas Eve mass…I was next to Nancy singing Joy to the World … Nancy’s voice resounding so strong and jubilant.  I felt at that moment that everything would be alright. And, although my singing voice was not of the same caliber as hers, I found the confidence with her next to me to sing out joyfully. Her presence could do that…leave you at peace and content.

God’s light truly shone out of her as it will out of the memory of her.  She was full of life, loved to have fun, respected, protected, and was attentive to every child, and gladly shared her gifts.  A true model to emulate. We have all been blessed to have had her touch our lives.  She loved and is loved. And now she is free again to sing Joy to the World, only now more aptly with the accompaniment of angels.


Given by: Diana Woodbury- Niece

January 29, 2019


 Today is a glorious day for all of us, because today is a glorious day for Nancy!!!  It is a humbling privilege to stand here before you and attempt to give witness to the life of Sr. Nancy Cavanaugh, a woman who embraced and embodied the qualities of her CSJ charism living prayerfully, humbly, simply, joyfully… with a generous heart, sincere love of the dear neighbor… and of course like so many CSJ’s… with a true spirit of just plain fun! 

I say humbled because I know so many of you have a longer history with Nancy than I.  I have only known her for 27 years.  But although I have not known her the longest, with the exception of Jesus, it is hard for me to believe that anyone in this chapel has loved her more than I!

I could stand here and tell you so many things about Nancy.  She was an amazing educator, not only because she was a great teacher and principal, but because Nancy never lost her own love of learning.

She was a fantastic musician… a gift for which she thanked God by sharing it generously with others, especially with so many children.  Her guitar was her friend and her voice that of an angel.  During the Liturgy we will hear Nancy sing her Magnificat.  If you want to know how Nancy lived her life, listen closely to the words she wrote.  Her “being always proclaimed the greatness of the Lord” and her “spirit never ceased to find joy in God her savior.” 

Nancy was a leader! As one who worked with and for her, I can attest to the fact that what made Nancy a great leader was not what she expected from others, it was what she inspired in them.  We know Nancy was never one who desired to be in the spotlight.  Nancy always chose to shine the light on others.

She was a faithful family member to both her family and mine.  My mom loved her!   She dearly loved her brother Law and Dee and their children and their children’s children… and she showered so much love and joy on my family, especially on my grand nieces, Jackie and Kate, who considered Nancy their aunt.

She loved, and was loved, by her Congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph!  Nancy loved to dance, loved South Boston, loved being Irish, loved to sing (especially Southie is my hometown), and loved to swim at Nantasket beach with her beloved sponsor, mentor, soul mate and long-time friend, Sr. Anne Nolan.

As I prepared this reflection, I turned to Nancy and asked her what she would want me to say.   She told me she simply wanted to say thank you to each of you for coming today, for the blessing and gift you were in her life.  She wanted to say thanks to the residents and employees at Bethany, her sisters who live here and to all who treated her with so much dignity and respect.  Each of you made Nancy’s last unbearable years bearable.

Nancy’s disease of Alzheimer’s gradually seemed to rob her of so much.  Yet, I really don’t think Nancy ever saw it that way, even though for six long years Nancy has been laying in a chair unable to walk, to feed herself, to ask for a sip of water, to scratch her nose, or to reposition her body.  But those of you who have been with Nancy these final years know that this disease never robbed her of her essence…. her joy!  Nancy truly accepted with joy this cross she carried.  I felt privileged to be Simon for her, helping her to carry it.  I don’t think there is a resident or an employee at Bethany who would not agree that as Nancy’s body and mind continued to diminish, her radiance and joy continued to increase.  When you get to be Simon for someone, you get to see the face of God on the one you are privileged to journey with!  How very blest I have been!

In 2016 Nancy celebrated her 60th anniversary as a Sister of Saint Joseph in this chapel.  She no longer was using words to communicate.  But for those of you in the chapel that morning I am sure you will recall the end of the Liturgy.  As the jubilarians left the chapel to raucous applause from the congregation, Nancy looked at her sisters as I wheeled her down the aisle and simply said thank you, thank you, thank you!  It brought so many of you to tears.  It brought me to tears too.  Meister Eckhart, a 12th century theologian and mystic said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough!”  Even in diminishment, Nancy’s prayer life never wavered. 

So, what do we take from this one wild and precious life of Nancy’s?  I think Nancy would tell us to accept with joy whatever it is God gives to us.  To trust that God will give us the grace we need, if we ask for it, and maybe even send us a Simon should we need one.  She would remind us to never stop saying thank you and being grateful for all that God has done for us.  Acceptance with Joy and GratitudeGratitude and Acceptance with Joy… two things we draw from Nancy’s life and carry with us when we remember her.

On Thursday night, as Nancy was completing her earthly journey, I had the privilege of holding her, offering her comfort, walking her to the finish line.  As much as I wished I could go with her as she stepped over in that final moment, I knew her work was complete and mine was not.  St. John Chrysostom reminds us that “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were.  They are now wherever we are.”  I am so elated to know that Nancy is now with me always.  I will never stop thanking God for being at that finish line to take Nancy’s hand from mine and walk her into eternal life.  Yes Nancy, acceptance with joy and gratitude.  I am accepting with joy your death…. And full of gratitude for your life!  Thank you from all of us for the love, the laughter, the joy and these, your final two lessons!  Well done good and faithful servant…. Well done!!!

Given by: Mary Ann Connolly, SC Loving “Sister” and Faithful Friend

January 29, 2019