My wife doesn’t make much of her birthdays. Our children will call. We might go out for a quiet dinner. But hardly a birthday passes without her receiving a greeting from a longtime friend, Loretto Sr. Mary McNellis. You see, my wife and McNellis share March 6 as a birthday, though McNellis was born quite a number of years before my wife. McNellis, the thoughtful and legendary woman religious, turns 100 this year. She is the first centenarian I have ever personally known.
Born in 1910 of Irish immigrant parents, McNellis entered the sisters of Loretto in 1928. She has spent over 60 of her 82 years of religious profession in education, while remaining devoted to a host of social justice issues, ecumenism and peace work. She remained quite active well into her 90s and still shows up at Kansas City, Mo., social activist events. At the age of 90, McNellis traveled to Fort Benning, Ga., where she crossed a line in an act of civil disobedience — in a wheelchair — in front of the School of the Americas.
She now lives in an apartment in Kansas City with another Loretto sister, Barbara Doak, her caretaker. McNellis attends Mass most Sundays at St. James Church and she continues to be a source of wisdom and encouragement for parishioners, especially the children. She often brings forward the bread and wine, her wheelchair pushed by a fellow parishioner, 97-year-old Ruth Pickett.
McNellis told me recently she has learned to place her full trust in God. Optimistic about the future? “Yes, because the Spirit moves when and where and how the Spirit wills.” Most significant changes in the church in your lifetime? “The emphasis on the preferential option for the poor and on peace and justice in general.” First pope you recall from childhood? “Pope Benedict XV.” (Benedict XV was pope from 1914 to 1922.) Eight popes ago! To Sr. Mary McNellis at the century mark, we bring you much gratitude and love.
Birthday wishes can be sent to:
Sister Mary McNellis
507 E 27th Terrace
Kansas City, MO 64108-3141