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Witness to Hope

Maeve and Sophie's mom

If you ever visit Valley of the Angels, you’ll probably hear someone say that Valley is less of an institution and more of a family. We eat meals together, do chores together, and learn lessons in and out of the classroom together.

In my six months at Valley, I have become close to many people, but I am especially grateful for the friendship I have with three women who work and volunteer here. They have become my surrogate mothers––inviting me into their homes, taking me out for coffee, allowing me to share in their lives––and I am so grateful for their love.

These women are incredibly strong and each has struggled with bearing heavy crosses throughout their lives. Recently, one of these women invited me to her daughter’s memorial Mass. Four years ago, her daughter passed away in a car accident. Sophie was in her first year of university and only a year younger than I when she died.

From what everyone says, Sophie was a woman with a heart for service. Her mother once told me that she pictured Sophie traveling abroad to do volunteer work. Maybe she would have become another one of my friends in Guatemala, but I’ll never know.

Honestly, I was a little surprised by the invitation to Sophie’s memorial mass. Her mother doesn’t often talk about Sophie, and when she does it’s often in a way that makes it seem like she’s still alive. I didn’t think I deserved to be at such an important event. I thought that mourning Sophie’s loss should be reserved for friends and family: the people who actually knew and loved her.

A prayer card from Sophie's memorial mass

A prayer card from Sophie’s memorial mass

Despite these doubts, I went to the mass with my fellow missioner Amanda. The mass was held at a small chapel that belongs to our local order of Poor Clares. Two local singers and guitar players were hired for this mass. Their talented voices added joy to an otherwise bittersweet mass.

After communion, my friend stood at the lectern and began to talk about her daughter. Up until this point my emotions had been in check, but as soon she spoke, I broke down.

I tilted my head toward the ceiling and willed the tears to stop. I was worried my friend’s family would see me and wonder why this gringa was crying for someone she never knew. I thought my tears seemed tacky, like I was putting on a show. As I stared up at the ceiling, I listened to my friend speak.

She is a wise woman who has known suffering that many will never experience. She acknowledged that every day is a struggle without Sophie, but she looks to the Gospel for reassurance that her daughter is with her Heavenly Father. She pointed out how in the first reading at mass, Elijah asks the Lord for death because his physical and mental suffering is so great. Elijah proclaims, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4-5) She knew how Elijah felt in his anguish. Then she read part of the Gospel again, “I am the living bread…if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” (John 6:51) She said that in the middle of horrible suffering there is always hope, and I believe that her life is a testament to that.

In this moment, I realized that I wasn’t crying for the girl I never knew, but for my friend. My tears had changed from tears of pity to tears of pride for her strength, her pain, and her faith.

Maeve Gilheney-Gallagher is a returned lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service who served for two years at Valley of the Angels orphanage in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She currently serves on the FMS Board and works as the Global Solidarity Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Mission. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Dan, and three-legged dog, Lola.