Sister Mary Campbell remembered as ‘a living gospel’

Family from Ireland joins friends and parishioners at Our Lady of Malibu to remember the nun with poetry, scripture and anecdotes.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Under blue skies and ocean breezes that were, by all accounts, as gentle as the lady herself, Sister Mary Campbell was eulogized at Our Lady of Malibu’s memorial mass last week Wednesday.

The nun, who had served at the church for years and was the principal caretaker for Pastor Emeritus Monsignor John V. Sheridan, was killed Aug. 25 in an auto accident that also injured Sheridan and Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, the U.S. ambassador to Malta. Kmiec, 58, and Sheridan, 94, underwent surgery for their injuries, and both were still hospitalized as of Tuesday.

During the service for Sister Mary, who was 74, the church filled to overflowing with grieving congregants and family members, flowers and candles. So many people came to pay their respects that fold-up chairs were lined shoulder to shoulder in the courtyard, along the sidewalk and every square inch of available space. More than 400 people, whether dressed in formal suits or motorcycle leather, attended.

With the same Irish lilt of Campbell’s voice, Sister Brid Long, of the order of St. Louis to which Campbell had belonged, invoked the memorial with the age-old verse, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

“Mary taught us to walk lightly on this earth,” Long said. “She wore freshness on her face.”

Long then cited the poem “Ephemera” by William Butler Yeats: “‘Ah, do not mourn,’ he said, ‘that we are tired, for other loves await us … Before us lies eternity; our souls are love, and a continual farewell.’”

With scripture read from Hebrews, Revelation and the Gospel of John, Campbell was remembered as a beloved teacher, staff liaison between her order and OLM, confidant and helpmate to Sheridan and, above all, a tireless proponent of her faith.

“We Christians believe in a lot of outrageous and absurd things,” Rev. Bill Kerze said in his eulogy. “Mary’s belief in the church was truly Catholic. Saint or sinner, fractured or whole, Mary believed there was room for everyone.”

Pianist Joe Rozum accompanied cantors Maura Piazza and Marijo de Mattos in hymns such as “We Walk by Faith” and “You Satisfy a Hungry Heart,” while congregants remembered Campbell, wiping away tears and nodding at comments by Kerze.

“Mary’s wasn’t a sophisticated faith,” Kerze said. “She was more bread and butter. But she was a living gospel.”

Kerze lauded Campbell’s years of service, always uncomplaining and cheerful, characterizing her as one of quiet voice, but speaking powerfully with her mind.

“Mary was the angel the Book of Revelation said God would send,” Kerze avowed.

Congregants remembered Campbell for different graces.

“She helped me so much when my son was killed,” Malibu resident Carolyn Magee said. “I will miss her so much.”

Suzanne Ricci, principal at OLM School, where Campbell taught 4th grade until retirement a few years ago, said, “There will be a big hole in our community without her. She was such a quiet, strong woman. I loved how she set a living example for her students. She would have been shy about all the attention here today, but she would have loved the sense of community connecting.”

Rev. John Patrick Toole, of St. Mel’s Catholic Church in Woodland Hills, agreed that the service was one Campbell would appreciate.

“I only have one question,” Toole said, “Where was Sister Mary’s guardian angel that day?”

Actor and OLM member Martin Sheen gave tribute to Campbell, remembering one of the last times he had dined with her and Sheridan.

“We were all sitting at the table and the talk turned to Ireland,” Sheen said. “What are the chances?”

Sheen said that Campbell, who usually was reserved, suddenly began to recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by Yeats.

“Mary recited it all by heart, saying she learned it as a child” Sheen said. “She might have been modest, but she couldn’t hide that deep Irish pride.”

Campbell’s brother-in-law, Gerry Rowley, spoke of Campbell as being one of the happiest people he ever knew.

“When she left us to return to California [from Ireland] last month, we were a bit sad, as one always is when saying good-bye,” Rowley said. “But we knew she was returning to people she deeply loved. On behalf of her family, I want to thank the community of Our Lady of Malibu for giving her that.”

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