All too soon we are here once again to commend one of our dear sisters, Sr. Mary Antoinette Fantino, to the Lord and to thank the Lord for the gift of her life and her vocation as a Daughter of St. Paul, praying for her eternal repose. We have loved her as a sister, as an aunt, as a friend and now we pray that she will intercede for us before the Lord.
I would dare say that anyone who ever met and engaged with Sr. M. Antoinette never forgot her. The first words that come to me at the mention of sister’s name are feisty, spirited, determined, courageous, as well as persistent, in love with her vocation and the Congregation, grateful. She was an untiring vocationist and a force to be reckoned with at the immigration office. She was also an expert at obtaining the best airline ticket to anywhere in the world. There were years where she practically lived at the airport, busing sisters back and forth to their flights, negotiating tickets not only for our sisters, but also for our chaplains and for members of other religious orders.
Love for the Congregation
Sr. M. Antoinette had a great love for the Congregation. Even in the last days, when because of her illness, she would be periodically disoriented, she would still realize more often than not that she was away from community. When sisters visited her, she made an effort to keep informed of all that was happening, to “stay connected.” She would ask things like, “How many sisters are going to school now?’ When she would be told she would say, “I wish everyone could go to school… It’s so important.” The question she asked most was, “What’s new at home?’ She would also ask about the postulants and how they were doing.
Sister loved her vocation as a Daughter of St. Paul and wanted to share it with as many young women as possible. She never lost an opportunity to invite a young woman to come and see what our life was like and to consider the possibility of giving her life to Christ. It’s amazing how many sisters have come up to me in these days or sent me a text, saying that Sr. Antoinette played an important part in their vocation, either because she extended the initial invitation to consider the religious life or because she displayed such joy in her own religious vocation.
Even in these last years when Sister was confined to the infirmary, sisters learned that a good way to obtain her cooperation was to cajole and remind her that she could offer up whatever she didn’t want to do to obtain graces for vocations. This reminder recalled her to something fundamental to her identity. She loved her own vocation so much that it was natural for her to want to share that love by actively promoting vocations in any way she could.
Sr. Mary Antoinette was a woman of prayer. When the novices visited her in the rehab center, they brought her a crucifix which she tenderly kissed. She would do this often. At one point, after she had cried out, “When am I coming home?” she looked longingly at the crucifix and said, “All for Him. He suffered so much more than I am. All for Him.”
Once when asked if she was in pain, she nodded and said, “It’s something to give to Jesus.”
Sr. M. Antoinette had a childlike love for the Blessed Mother and a real trust in her powerful intercession. Often when a sister would leave for evangelization or for the book center, she would say, “Give a book on the Blessed Mother for me.”
Sr. Antoinette was a one nun travel agency and rejoiced every time she could save the Congregation money by negotiating wisely, but she would do it without cutting corners. One sister recounts: When handing me my ticket to go home and see my parents she said, “I got you a later flight. This way you can go to Mass, have lunch with your parents and spend a little more time with them before taking your flight.” She treasured the gift of family and desired that we make the most of our time home with them.
I think the words all of us heard most in this last year of Sr. Mary Antoinette’s life were, “Thank you,” and “God bless you,” – whether it was for a glass of water, helping her up or down on the lift, or refilling her empty coffee cup. She also had a real spirit of compassion. Sr. Noel recounts: “While visiting her at the Vero rehab center I noticed that she was looking toward the foot of her bed at the bathroom and murmuring, “Poor thing! Poor thing!” I turned, and the lady who shared the room with Sr. M. Antoinette was pushing her walker toward the bathroom, so I offered to help her, but she said she was okay. Sr. Antoinette didn’t hear me offering to help, so she said, ‘Sr. Noel, she needs help.’ I assured her that I had offered. I couldn’t help but reflect and be impressed by her awareness of another’s need, even though she was in so much need and in pain herself. I remember a priest once saying that we are like a glass: when a glass breaks into pieces, these pieces still shine. Even in our brokenness we can shine” (Sr. M. Noel).
A last memory I would like to share is from Sr. Donna on the Sunday a week before she died. “She had done so well, feeding herself with a plastic spoon and almost able to get out of bed, but she wasn’t strong enough. After lunch she looked at me and said, ‘I just feel bad because I’m not doing anything here.’ I leaned over and said in her ear, ‘well, you aren’t doing nothing. You are doing something very precious; you are offering up your sufferings and the sacrifice of being here – and that’s worth more to God than any other active apostolate.’ I leaned back. She was smiling at me. Then I had the inspiration to lean back down and say, ‘Besides, as you’ve always told me, the most important thing – the reason we are here – is to do God’s will. Right?’ She squeezed my hand and chuckled as if to say, ‘Touche!’ It was precisely how she would have responded to me if our roles were reversed, and she knew it. But it was a loving look, and I’ll always remember it” (Sr. Donna).
So let me close with the words of Sr. Mary Antoinette herself, the piece we chose for her memorial card: “I really feel and see the guiding hand of God, Father and Mother, in my life. Looking back on the different things that have happened, I see He was always with me – that, ignorant as I was and still am, He watches over me, guides me, and protects me. How grateful I am for this loving, continuous care of God, Father and Mother. I must show my gratitude by being always more attentive to His inspirations, to the way He is leading and guiding me.”
Sr. Mary Antoinette, your sisters pray lovingly and gratefully for you and commend you to the God you dedicated your life to, the God who is Father and Mother, to Jesus Master, the Lord and Love of your life. May our Triune God, Mary our Mother, St. Paul and all the saints of the Pauline Family in heaven welcome you. We know you won’t forget to intercede for us that we get good tickets to heaven when it’s time (preferably direct, non-stop). Intercede for your loved ones – family and friends – and for the entire Congregation. We love you and thank you.