The Lumen Christi award was presented to Sr. Mary Elizabeth in Chicago by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin on September 17, 1989.
At the reception afterwards, Bishop Robert Mulvee of Wilmington, who had nominated Sister, gave the following address:
Sister Mary Elizabeth: Light of Christ in Salisbury
Thank you, Father, and thanks to all of you of Extension Society. I am particularly grateful that you have selected Sister Mary Elizabeth for this award. In the Diocese of Wilmington, we consider her very special and we’re so very grateful that you now consider her special also.
When I was told by Fr. Slattery that Sister was going to be the recipient and the date of the award, I indicated that I regretted that I could not be here. I was a member of the Catholic Relief Society, and as a member I was going to be in Indonesia visiting our work with the poor there. But that was considered unacceptable….
So I was able to rearrange my schedule. I flew non-stop from Singapore to Chicago the night before last. I mention that for two reasons: because during these last two weeks I had the occasion to visit some very, very poor people whose annual income varies between $80 and $180 a year. And that’s not in cash; that’s in food and what they receive.
But I must tell you quite honestly: as moved as I was by that poverty, I would have to say that I realize it is in my own diocese as well. And I know that thanks to Sister Mary Elizabeth.
I was appointed as the Bishop of Wilmington after having served for twenty-eight years in New Hampshire. In my first week as Bishop, I visited the Eastern Shore; I was a total stranger in that area. I’m one of two Bishops in the country that has two jurisdictions. I have all of Delaware, plus the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
I had known the Eastern Shore of Maryland as the place where all of Washington went for vacations to Ocean City and the beautiful Eastern Shore resorts. But when I visited, Sr. Mary Elizabeth took me on a tour of areas that most people do not see on the way to the Shore. And I met people in the Diocese of Wilmington who had no roof over their heads and no food in their stomachs and nowhere to turn.
And so, as touched as I was by the needs of Indonesia and all that Catholic Relief Services does in your name as Catholics from the United States, as much as I realize that we have to reach out with the abundance and the substance of the United States to our brothers and sisters throughout the world, I think that people like Sr. Mary Elizabeth are a constant reminder to us that I didn’t have to go on a trip for 25,000 miles to see the poor.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth is one of those kind of people who has the ability to have eyes that see and ears that hear the cry of the poor, and to raise our consciousness about it.
The other thought that I had as I was in the plane for twenty-six hours, was that it seemed to me singularly appropriate that an award Sr. Mary Elizabeth receives should be called the LIGHT OF CHRIST. Because I think she is that in the area where she serves, in Baltimore as well as in the Eastern Shore. I think it’s a fitting award that is given by Extension Society, because I think Extension Society is captured by that LIGHT OF CHRIST that you give.
And for me as a Bishop, I was ordained a Bishop in 1977 on the Thursday of Easter week and eight years later I was installed as the Bishop of Wilmington on the same day, the Thursday of Easter week. And so the Paschal candle was very much a part of both of those ceremonies. And that, of course, for us symbolically is the LIGHT OF CHRIST.
I would like to suggest that that light symbolizes Extension Society and Sr. Mary Elizabeth. The next time you light a candle, just look at the flame. Every flame, at least in my eyesight, has three colors.
At the bottom it’s blue. And I think that’s an appropriate color for Sr. Mary Elizabeth who dedicated her new Community in a special way under the patronage of Mary, the Mother of God — a true model for Sr. Mary Elizabeth and for all of us, of trying to be open to God’s will and, as Mary did, reaching out to others in need.
And look at the flame again. You’ll see that in the center it’s a dark color. And I think that also reflects the darkness that Sr. Mary Elizabeth has seen in her life, the sorrows, the set-backs, the insults, the ridicule, tears, the disappointments of her own life. But I think for her it also includes her willingness to share in the darkness of so many people’s lives, and their pains, and their hurts and their anxieties. I think that is a hallmark of her life: to allow the shadow of the cross not only to fall on her willingly, but to embrace the cross in the lives of others.
But I think that the secret in looking at the flame is also to realize that the pinnacle — and the whole flame at first sight — is all gold. Because to our Sr. Mary Elizabeth, faith, the sign of hope, the presence of Christ is seen in the gold of the flame, the gold that seems to encompass it all. She’s never allowed her love and her faith to burn separate from the wick; it’s always there. Her faith is at the heart of all she does.
When you look at the flame of a candle you see that it flickers all over the place, going this way and that. And that’s the greatest picture you’ll ever get of Sr. Mary Elizabeth: going this way and that, never knowing which way she’s going to go.
So I would like to suggest that when you think of her, look at the flame and realize that in this woman — and indeed in Extension Society the image applies just as well — the Light of Christ and the Warmth of Christ is shown. In Sr. Mary Elizabeth, who reflects this light so beautifully, you honor the Diocese of Wilmington, the Diocese in which I have the privilege to serve.
The Most Reverend Robert E. Mulvee, D.D.
Bishop of Wilmington
September 17, 1989