A week before Christmas I interviewed Sister Mary Jean at her home in west Raleigh. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the season as I drove to her house. Traffic was bad. My to-do list played over and over in my head like a bad advertising jingle.
When I walked into her living room, the chaos subsided. What I saw carried the energy of 100 deep breaths.
A folding chair sat on the carpeted floor. It was pulled away from a small desk just enough so that I could sit easily. Except for a bottle of water, the desk’s surface was clear. I placed my phone, notebook and pen on it. Sister Mary Jean sat across from me. On a table near us were two photo books with pictures from her life.
I will always remember the environment she created, and how it created calm.
Sister Mary Jean Korejwo, 82, died April 24 following complications from a fall she experienced in February.
I first heard the news from my mom, who worked with Sister for years at Cardinal Gibbons High School. At one point during their friendship they traveled to Chardon, Ohio, to visit Sister’s mother house for her order, the Sisters of Notre Dame.
My mom and Sister had a bond created for a lot of reasons. I always figured one was that they were both survivors. Sister Mary Jean, who was a triplet, lost two brothers not long after they were born. And my mom’s twin brother died when they were in their 20s.
They were thoughtful to each other in the little ways that can change someone’s day – a handwritten note, a frosty dessert or a small vase of zinnias from a garden.
When it came to getting work done in the high school’s business office, they were a pair there, too.
“She loved somebody giving her a task, and she always completed it beyond their expectations,” my mom said about Sister. “Whatever she was asked to do, she’d take that and run with it. It was something that she really enjoyed doing.”
Sister is remembered for her sense of humor and the telling smirk she would wear when she found something funny.
My mom recalled the last time she saw Sister. She had gone to a Raleigh hospital to visit her.
“She said, 'They’re transporting me back to Ohio.’ She was happy,” my mom told me. “I smiled and asked, ‘Am I the first one to find out?’ And she said, ‘No, I am’ and grinned. She still had her wit.”
Those who knew Sister understood that mobility problems were part of the challenges she faced in life. But, they said, she would prepare and work toward the next occasion even when she was in pain or recovering from a non-physical setback.
Monsignor Jerry Sherba first met Sister 20 years ago when he was rector at cathedral and she was a sacristan.
“I have always loved sisters … from when I was a kid, it just seemed there were religious sisters in my life who were influential in my vocation,” he said. “Of course Sister was a sister so I loved her, and got to like her too.”
He remembered how she sent greeting cards and expressed her thoughts in clear ways.
“She was a fighter. She really was … heart of gold, too,” he said. “She said what she meant. She meant what she said. You didn’t have to second guess her. You knew where she stood, and I don’t think that’s very common anymore. I think we try to be that way, but then we are afraid we are going to hurt someone. She could be honest without being brutal.”
When we talked, Monsignor Jerry was quick to remind me: “We’re sad because she’s gone, but then we realize her suffering is over. There is that joy and peace.”
My mom had her own spiritual moment the day Sister Mary Jean died. She and Sister each had a perpetual calendar from the Sisters of Notre Dame. Every day featured a quote or message from St. Julie Billiart, the order’s foundress.
The quote for that day, my mom told me, was: “If all does not go right, the good God will open a way for us. Be occupied with the present moment.”
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