Peace, Aunt Fran…

My Aunt Frances (Rose Frances Norcott), aka Sr. Michelle of the Congregation of the Divine Spirit of Erie, PA died last week.  She was the youngest of my father’s siblings (he was the eldest) and had been a nun since the 1950s.  She spent most of her adult life teaching in a grammar school in Erie, PA (St. Andrew’s) and spent the last few years working at a nursing home run by her order in Canton, OH.  It was there that she fell ill a few months ago, and her big heart finally gave out.

I remember the first time I met my Aunt Fran.  She was the last of my father’s siblings I got to meet.  The order to which she belonged had very strict rules regarding the nuns outside their community.  After she had been a nun for a while, she was allowed to visit her mother in Boston every few years for a week in the summer.  The first time I met her, she had come up to visit her mom, one of her sisters, my Aunt Mary, came from California with her two sons to spend about six weeks in Boston.  In going over to visit my grandmother, have some play time with my cousins, I was also going to see, for the first time, my Aunt Fran.  My mom reminded me, though I already knew it, that she was a nun.  I knew nuns from my own grammar school experience (I would have been in the 3rd or 4th grade at this point at St. Peter’s School) and figured that there’d be nothing new in seeing my Aunt Frances as a nun.  I had another aunt who was a nun, my mother’s Aunt Marion (aka Sr. Marion Anthony).  I remember being shocked by my Aunt Fran’s appearance.  All the nuns I knew were Sisters of Charity of Halifax, and they all had the full nun outfit — the floor length black gown, the veil and the wimple.  The habit for the Sisters of the Divine Spirit was something that looked like what an airline attendant might wear — rather prim airline attendants, but airline attendants nevertheless.  It was a gray dress that stopped about a foot above the foot.  There was no veil, no wimple, but rather a traveling hat that looked like the foldable Garrison caps soldiers (and airline attendants) wear. 

At some point in our visit, my brother Neill went out with our cousins Michael and Richard to play.  For some reason I didn’t go with them.  My Aunt Frances cornered me and began to ask me questions about school and all.  She had an easy manner and was agreeable to talk to.  And I recall that she got me to talk about what we were singing in our music class at school, and then convinced me to join her in a duet of “Froggy Goes a-Courtin’.”  This duet ended abruptly with the return of Richard, Michael and my brother.  The shame of being “teacher’s pet” even with my aunt (and their aunt) was greater than any joy I was getting from the song.  I was a very self-conscious youngster, and very worried about what my cousins might say. 

I remember every time I met my Aunt Frances — there weren’t many times, probably no more than a dozen and a half in the 45 years or so following our first visit.  Her order was very strict, and she didn’t get to visit people — no one outisde her immediate family.  I mainly saw her at funerals.  What struck me always about her was her gentleness.  I’m not sure that I could live in an order like hers — lots of rules and lots of restrictions.  But the few times that I visited the order’s home in Erie, PA, it seemed a very positive place, with lots of positive energy. 

Of course, these days, I don’t hold many of the beliefs I professed when I was a  youngster, or which I tried to profess as an adult.  I don’t really believe in an afterlife — it seems to me you get one chance and that’s it.  My Aunt Frances most definitely believed in an afterlife.   If she is right, I”m sure she is receiving the reward for a life well-lived.  If I am right in my belief, she lived a life she loved, and lived a life of love, and, if she had only the one chance, I think she made a lot of it. 

I was unable to make it to her funeral in Canton, OH, but was happy that my brother and his family could get there.  And a cousin from Pittsburgh was also able to be there, as well as to be in Erie for the internment.  She was very much in my mind all of yesterday and today.  And, though I don’t do traditional prayer, as I understand prayer, I’d like to think that my thoughts these past couple of days were prayerful.  Thank you, Aunt Fran, for you life well-lived.

speaking my truth in love, and in special affection for my aunt,


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