At our parish church, this morning’s Mass was celebrated for a friend of mine and many, Joan Horgan, who died in August. Joan was the small, slight, older lady with the toothy, girlish smile who helped lead our RCIA class four years ago until I could ignore her no longer and I asked her to be my sponsor. She stood by my side at the Easter Vigil in 2008, a full head and shoulders shorter than me. In many ways she stood taller.
I don’t think I am betraying any confidences when I write that Joan was twice disappointed in marriage. After her second marriage ended, she was left alone—except for seven hungry, growing children and eventually grandchildren—in a house on the hill above our town.
Joan worked in the office of our local library, keeping track of orders and such. She was diagnosed with lung cancer two or three years ago, and the cancer spread to her brain. In her last days, when so many friends from church and town sat with her in her sitting room, her family gathered around her too, now four generations deep. One day near the end, I sat with her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter, all of us by Joan’s side as she lay on the couch with her eyes closed and an oxygen hose beneath her nose. Although she said little, she heard every word and reacted with a repeating smile.
Joan represented many things for me, and as this year of her death comes to an end, I want to hold on to these things, along with her memory.
Joan was unabashedly Catholic, but her faith was not a cudgel. She did not proselytize. Instead, she was a quiet witness, whose warmth, thoughtfulness, and—in spite of everything—unshakable faith did not need words to express themselves. When you were with Joan, you knew that she had found a source of confidence and joy—and you knew that you wanted what she had. It turns out that what Joan had was faith in Jesus Christ the King and a battle-tested loyalty to the Catholic Church.
Joan was ever grateful to her parents. She kept a lovely portrait of them—the English father, the French-Canadian mother—on the back of the spinet that faced her favorite reading chair. That piano had many pictures on it, including children and grandchildren and a favorite uncle who was that rare commodity, an English-born Catholic priest.
Joan was always hopeful—about her far-flung progeny, about her shaky finances, about her physical illness. Then, when it was no longer reasonable to hope for a physical cure for her cancer, the exceptional peace that always lay just under her skin came out and covered her like a warm blanket. That peace still surrounded her as she lay in her casket in the funeral parlor, with a rosary entwined in her fingers.
About that casket: Joan was practical, what with raising seven children alone and on a shoestring. So when she knew the end was coming, she did everything she could think of to prepare for it in order to keep the burden off her family. Joan ordered her own casket from one of those abbeys where the monks are carpenters and bless each box as they send it out the door. She bought her cemetery plot, making sure that it was big enough to contain two others who could not afford plots of their own. She chose the music for her funeral mass and the readings, both of which I had the honor to read. And I’m pretty sure, although he did not say so, that Joan let Father Barnes know what kind of message she wanted delivered in his funeral homily. In the sacristy after the funeral, I said to our pastor, commenting on the overall effect of the Mass in terms that might seem sacrilegious or disrespectful: “Pardon my French, Padre, but I think our friend Joan kicked butt one last time today.”
I knew what I was saying and I hope he did too. Joan had used her own funeral to witness to the faith. The overall message—music, readings, homily, no eulogy—was quiet but unequivocal.
Joan was always interested in you. As her condition worsened, and I continued to visit her more or less regularly once a week, I was astonished at the new and unexpected people who came by to see her—how many friends she had! Where did they all come from? It turned out that they came from her faith, love, and charity. In this she reminded me of the title character in Tony Hendra’s book Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Soul. Father Joe is a spiritual advisor who makes Hendra feel like he is the most important person in the priest’s life and probably the only advisee. At the priest’s funeral, Hendra learns that Father Joe advised literally hundreds of other people.
Joan Horgan was like that: a little stone dropped in God’s pond, which made countless ripples. I was just one of them.