Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In Memory of Sister Marie Yvonne, O.P.

I’ve decided to change my usual post because today is the anniversary of the death of my sister, Diane (Sister Marie Yvonne, O.P.)  She passed away from cancer in 2009.   I still miss her.

This is a little long but I enjoy going back occasionally and reading it.

Eulogy for Sister Marie Yvonne Armstrong of the Precious Blood, OP
August 17, 2009

“A life poured out in love of God and neighbor”  (John Henry Newman In His Time edited by Phillippe Lefebvre, p. 255)

Who was this 4’10” woman who used to be 5’6” –the one that we became used to seeing in that ungainly, cumbersome body brace with not a grey hair in her head nor a wrinkle in her beautiful, peace-filled face with the serene smile?  The one who only 6 weeks ago trained and conducted from her wheel chair a bell choir in music she had composed (along with S Mary Diane).  She was in such excruciating pain that day that she almost backed out of conducting. But who would have known? We saw her pushing her jerry chair to chapel for Mass and Office, prayerfully participating   Where did her gracious, loving, shy yet stubborn ways come from?

We are once again at the heart of the mystery of the human person.  Let’s see if in between the lines of the dates and events we can come to discover something more of this beloved sister, sister-in-law, aunt, great aunt, Dominican sister, teacher, musician, dear friend, great cook, seamstress, patient and so much more.

Sister Marie Yvonne of the Precious Blood was born Diane Elaine Armstrong of John and Adele Armstrong in Los Angeles on October 12, 1940.  Librans are known for their balance, their love of beauty and their sense of justice, all traits she would develop.

Diane was baptized at the age of 4, October 14, 1944 along with her Mother and brother John  at St Elizabeth’s in Altadena.  Her godparents are listed as Forest and Margaret Madison who became life-long 2nd parents.  Good friends of the Armstrongs,  the Madisons attended the 50th wedding anniversary of John and Adele celebrated at Flintridge Sacred Heart.  There is a lovely photo of the Armstrong family sitting/standing in the patio there.  It had a prominent place in Sister’s room.

The eldest of 9 with 4 brothers and 4 sisters, Diane  has been deeply devoted to her family throughout her life.  John, David, George, Daniel, Jane, Julie, Dorothy and Margaret:  you and yours meant the world to her.  Just as she held your hands when you were little, count on that same care and protection as the months and years go by.

Diane’s memories of family life, of childhood and school were very happy.  The oldest usually develops a  heightened sense of responsibility, which can be mistaken for “bossiness.”  Certainly the Diane, who became Marie Yvonne, was very responsible and meticulous, looking out for the other -- one of the gifts of her place in the family.

She had a marvelous model in your mother who was a stay-at-home mom, devoted to her husband, her children, her garden, a true “homemaker”, a great cook and a wonderful Mom.   The family moved often because Mr. Armstrong was with Standard Oil Company.

Mr. Armstrong had been in the army and was coming home. Mrs. Armstrong was getting the children ready so they would look good for Daddy.  Diane was about 4 ½ and Johnny about 2 1/2.  Mom had combed Johnny’s hair when big sis came by and told him to sit on his training potty because she was going to fix his hair.  Diane took the scissors and wacked away. Mom was horrified when she saw Johnny with big hunks of hair missing.  Welcome home, Daddy!

Just before this at their home on Lake St, Altadena, 4 year old Diane began her career as a gourmet cook.  She decided to fix breakfast.  Having observed her mother innumerable times, she got out the eggs and broke them in the bowl, added salt and pepper and just the right amount of milk and stirred.  Then she got the pan, put it on the stove, added butter and poured in the mixture.  Being a bright girl she went to wake her mother and tell her  “hambled eggs”.  Mom understood, got up, turned on the stove and they enjoyed delicious scrambled eggs. This was the beginning of a life-long passion for cooking—our own Julia Child (I think she wanted to see this movie).  From a four year old scrambling eggs, she became a gourmet cook delighting her Flintridge community at Thanksgiving with the best cinnamon breakfast rolls and a fabulous sweet potatoe casserole among other delights. In fact it was over an argument about fixing jello that she and Glenn Anne became such good friends.  Yvonne did much the same at her annual set reunions.  For 33 years she planned the menus and was the chief cook, much to the satisfaction of her set. She even tried her hand at a wedding cake for her sister’s wedding.

The family moved several times and ended up in Taft on a Standard Oil lease. This was not an exciting place to live, rather isolated.  One day the children decided that they were bored and should run away. Diane cooked up the plan and Mom fixed them a good picnic lunch, knowing that they were perfectly safe and could only go a small distance to the next lease. The kids had a great time and Mom finally had a couple of hours to herself which she relished.  It was from Taft that Diane went to Flintridge Sacred Heart for her four years of high school.

She loved these years as a boarder on the hill.  Her senior yearbook describes her with sparkling blue eyes, blonde curls and an aptitude for science.  She was artistic and daily Mass was a must.  There is no mention of music but there is of sewing.  In the second semester of her senior year, Diane was asked to take over for the sewing teacher.  She wouldn’t have to teach but just help the girls finish the projects that they were working on.  This delighted her because she would have plenty of time to work on her own sewing projects.  At the end of the year, the sisters gave Diane a silver thimble as a token of appreciation.  This was one possession she never gave away.  She was such a good seamstress that over the years she made her own patterns.  It was at Flintridge that her vocation was nurtured.  Sister attributed Sister Benigna and Sister Margaret as having the greatest influence on her.

Diane entered September 7 of 1958 following her graduation.  She received the habit June 13, 1959 and the name of Marie Yvonne of the Precious Blood.  She made her first profession on June 24, 1960 and final vows June 24, 1966. Sister received her BA in Music from Holy Names and her MA in Music with a major in Organ Performance in 1974, also from Holy Names.  A year later she received her secondary teaching credential. Sister Mary Bertha recognized musical talent in sister and  nurtured it. Sister Marie Yvonne listed herself as a music teacher at the motherhouse from 1962-63, at St Anthony’s, San Francisco from 1963-65 (an assignment she loved) and again at the motherhouse from 1965 to 1973. It was during this time that she served as First Chantress, a role she relished since it has such an impact on our prayer life.  She went to Flintridge, her alma mater, in 1973 until 1990, serving as music teacher and prioress. She tried her hand as classroom teacher for two years at San Gabriel Mission High school before returning to the QHRC School of Music from 1992 to 2001 as its principal.

I had the good fortune to spend several years with Yvonne at Flintridge. The music cottage is a bit isolated from the high school building where most of the action is.  Wanting to make her feel at home and get to know the staff, I asked Sister to take a homeroom (15 minutes 3 times a week is all that it was).  She politely refused.  Using what I consider to be fairly strong powers of persuasion I persisted but had met my match in her equally stubborn refusal.  I tried each year but met with failure.  However, God does have great plans and God let Yvonne have it.  The senior Kairos retreat program was introduced and Marie Yvonne became a true believer and entered into this powerful program as one of the adult leaders, setting her shyness aside and letting her strong faith shine through as she worked with the student and adult teams.  So much for 15 minute homerooms!  Needless to say Yvonne was an integral part of the staff, much loved by faculty and seniors, not just an isolated music teacher.  Her last six years on the hill she was also the leader of the sisters’ community.  It was while at Flintridge that Yvonne found a marvelous music teacher from whom she took regular lessons for several years.  This was where she became the master organist, as well as composer.

One of her lasting accomplishments was her collaboration in the development of our Dominican Praise. In her own words:
“I have had many opportunities to travel, but my last traveling was done between 1999 and 2001. During that period I flew several times to the Adrian Dominican Motherhouse in Michigan to work on a Committee in collaboration with Dominican Sisters from some of the other Dominican Congregations. Our goal was to create a new prayer book for Dominican Sisters to use when praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The book eventually came to be called Dominican Praise.”  See p. xxiii for the list of contributors—hers is the first name, along w/ Renilde and Mary Diane.  S Gloria brought a note for Yvonne  from S Honora who worked with Yvonne on Dominican Praise in which she says “Your singing spirit echoes in our prayer book…I promise you my prayers and love as you sing now in – perhaps—a new key.  You are ever a part of us !”

Sister’s last assignment has been at St Martin’s care center and her ministry has been suffering and prayer, though she  certainly kept up with her music, her composition, her relationships.  But just as with Kairos, God has another path on this journey.  In her own words :
“In 2001 I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma which is cancer of the bone marrow.  That year I underwent serious back surgery to remove a malignant tumor and one vertebra in my lower back.  Two more surgeries followed to clean out infections.  After the third surgery the doctors gave me a year or less to live.  I began giving away my possessions and preparing for death.  For five years I was dying of cancer.  Finally, I made up my mind that I didn’t want to do that anymore, so now I am living with cancer instead.  The cancer’s in remission and I’m trying to live each day to the fullest.  However, the illness has left my neck and spine somewhat deformed and caused me to shrink about 8 inches.  For the most part I’m pretty independent.”   One of the treasures she did not give away was her father’s easy chair which Yvonne used in her room.  It was a way of connecting with her beloved Dad.

And live each day she did knowing that this is God’s moment and this is where God is present –the Sacrament of the Present Moment.  Most of this time she has been in pain, though most never guessed the extent of  it.  When asked on a scale of 1 to 10, she would respond  8 to 10 and sometimes 13 to15.  She never showed it by impatience, facial expression, or isolation.  She welcomed anyone who came to her door, always asking how they were.

In the early part of this year she was in excruciating pain.  Her doctor decided to remove the hardware in her spine and fitted her with a different brace.  After physical therapy she came home and was able to be in a regular wheel chair which made her happy.  Things seemed to be going ok.  A few weeks ago she complained of numbness in her legs.  She was hospitalized for a procedure to restore the flow of blood to her legs.  The doctor took a sample of her lymph nodes to send to Stanford.  The day she went to the hospital, August 13, he received the report.  Later that evening with Drs Meheegan, Martin and Chalma present, Sister was told that she had a rampant lymphoma throughout her system.  She was offered a choice of chemotherapy, steroid treatment or hospice.  She said “Hospice and I want to go home.”  At 11pm she did indeed go home, home to her God.  Her body had taken all that it could and she knew it several weeks before.

We have been blessed to watch a saint in the making.  Yvonne was so faithful to people and very loving when she got to know you.  The McPhee’s, her second family, can attest to that as can her countless music students and their parents.  Yvonne had a fine sense of humor and did not take herself seriously, something that helped her greatly these last years.  She was meticulous, sometimes compulsive and a great putterer.  She could spend hours neatening.  When she was treasurer and we had three colors of the forms, she not only had “white out” she had it in the three colors of the forms!

Her thoughtfulness is legendary.  Even her last evening she sent the sisters home, saying she’d see them in the morning.  She was grateful to Tara for accompanying her in the ambulance

Yvonne never wanted to be a bother or to put anyone out.  She wouldn’t tell Glenn Anne how much she was suffering because she didn’t want her to worry.  Sister gracefully and lovingly said her final goodbye to Jennifer as she left for the hospital.

This is a woman who never complained but accepted her path.  She choose to accept death, then choose to embrace life, and then again welcomed death.  She embraced her pain and wasn’t going to make anyone else carry it.  You know how independent she was, even to fixing her own food when she could.  It may well have been this stubborn independence which kept her alive so long.

Her love of Mary followed her all through her life as did her love of the Blessed Sacrament  She spent a quiet daily Holy Hour in the chapel.  She loved her doctors.  And we are all grateful to you.  You now have a good friend and former patient in heaven.

In the end Yvonne was stripped of everything.  She knew it was time to go.  And she did with tremendous courage, equanimity, joy and patience.  Here is the good and valiant woman!

On the back of her door she had this at her eye level:

Let Your God Love You  by Edwina Gately  ( from a recent retreat)

Be Silent         Let your God
Be still         Look upon you.
Alone That is all.
Empty         God knows
Before your God God understands
Say nothing God loves you
Ask nothing Within an enormous love

Be silent         And only wants to look upon you
Be still With that love.
   Let your God – Love you

At the end she was living this  Let us go and do likewise.  We love you, Yvonne


  1. I don't know exactly why, but I was thinking of your sister today. She was my piano teacher from the time she arrived back at FSHA in 1973 until I traded the keyboard for singing in 1982. I have very fond memories of her, and when she came to mind today, I recalled hearing that she had gone to be with God some years ago. So I Googled her and found this loving obituary, which brought tears to my eyes. I wish I had tried harder to get to know her as a person, and not just the disciplined nun to whom I had to report weekly in order to show my piano progress and try to learn more. But I still remember when, in 1981, she acquiesced to my request to learn Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" instead of the usual classical music I didn't yet fully appreciate. I was grateful for her understanding and willingness to help me enjoy the instrument a bit more. She was very special, and I wish I'd let her know it!

    1. Thanks for you kind thoughts about my sister.
      The other day, when I discovered an ancestor had sung in college a century ago, I was wishing that I could call her and tell her.
      Most likely, though, she already knew because she has probably been singing up in heaven with that ancestor.