The eulogies at the funeral Mass for Dame Sister Pauline Engel, RSM, while tinged with sadness, also elicited fond laughter from many present.
Those eulogies also paid tribute to a Sister of Mercy who was a significant contributor to many aspects of the life of the Catholic Church in New Zealand for decades.
Dame Sister Pauline Engel, RSM, DBE, CBE, died at North Shore Hospital on November 15, aged 87.
After welcoming people to the Requiem Mass at St Joseph’s church in Takapuna on November 20, Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa Sisters of Mercy New Zealand congregational leader Sr Katrina Fabish said that there were commons strands in the many stories shared about Dame Sr Pauline since her death. Many stories had been told the previous night at Carmel College, where she had been principal from 1983-1991.
“Fiesty, spirited, often-heard-before-seen”, were some of the terms mentioned, to bouts of laughter from those present.
“Last night we heard the testimonies from many people, and they said Pauline made you feel like they were the only one, including family. You always felt special with Pauline . . . ,” Sr Katrina said.
Therefore Dame Sr Pauline’s motto – “Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all)” – had been well chosen.
“We know Pauline to have had a passion for justice, a passion for mercy, a heart and voice for many things. We know that when Pauline spoke, she commanded attention. Pauline didn’t indulge in pious platitudes but in earthy adjectives,” Sr Katrina said.
“She had fire in her belly and spoke to the point. I think of Pauline as a person who fronted up to life, to people and to the betterment of others.”
“Pauline’s key commitment was to education of women,” Sr Katrina continued, “and a sign as we heard last night at the principal’s office door at Carmel College was ‘girls can do anything’, was testament to her unfailing energy in calling students to give of their very best and more.”
“Of course, her look and her stance was enough to enhance their desire to learn,” Sr Katrina added, to further widespread laughter from the congregation.
“This commitment earned her public recognition in honours conferred by the state – in 1995 Pauline was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to education, having been made Commander of the same order in 1986.”
Among her many contributions to the Church listed were her roles in the Sisters of Mercy, including congregational leadership, her being Vicar for Education for many years in Auckland diocese and at one time being chair of the board of Zealandia.
Her great loves were history, politics, the arts and literature and Carmel College, her turangawaewae.
Sr Katrina read out a statement from Sr Pauline’s former colleague Dennis Horton: ““Despite her diminutive stature and a physical frame that would increasingly fail with time, she remained active and informed on the burning issues of Church and society. Before she entered religious life, she had worked with the Department of Justice and later wrote what has become the definitive history on the abolition of capital punishment in this country. More recently, at age 85, she made a written submission to a parliamentary health committee, opposing the introduction of assisted suicide. On both topics, Pauline’s concern was focused on the rights of the individual and the integrity and sanctity of human life. She was strongly opposed to the Springbok Tour of New Zealand in 1981 and was among religious who actively opposed rugby matches in Auckland at that time. . . . .“
Sr Kathleen concluded: “Pauline, you are indeed, our dame, not only in title, but in living with a big heart and an even bigger capacity for life. Love is your motto and you have shared this in abundance and with passion. We honour you.”
Speaking for Dame Sr Pauline’s family, her niece Jane Nolan also added a few touches of humour.
Referring to a time when a younger Sr Pauline would visit family in Wellington, Ms Nolan said her aunt “sat up half the night and slept in until midday. She was always gallivanting around, catching up with friends and the phone never stopped ringing”.
“Of course, someone else had to answer the phone because Pauline was either still in bed or out.
“It really isn’t surprising that she connected so well with teenagers” – the congregation saw the funny side of this too and laughed appreciatively.
“Amongst the younger members of the family,” Ms Nolan continued, “rumours circulated that underneath Pauline’s veil there was a ponytail. At night, she would let her hair down, and I didn’t see this myself, but I think it is true, a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey in the other. After the stories we heard last night, I don’t think I shattered anyone’s illusions.”
This tale produced probably the heartiest laughter from the congregation during the eulogies.
But Ms Nolan also paid tribute to her aunt’s devotion to her family.
“While choosing a life that precluded having a family of her own, Pauline was very close to her nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews and great, great nieces and nephews. She never forgot their names and asked after each one.”
Ms Nolan added that “Pauline did not talk about her own achievements, but was always more interested in what we were doing. She had great faith in young people and admiration for what they achieve in the modern world. Pauline’s ability to connect with people left us feeling empowered, rather than daunted by her own work and achievements.”
“While some may see the religious life as restricting, Pauline saw it as giving many opportunities that she would not have had as a lay woman. To all of you who worked with Pauline and supported her in her vision that she had, thank you. Words are not enough, but thank you.”
Ms Nolan continued: “Like anyone who achieves something special, Pauline had a good team backing her up. She acknowledged this when recognised with the Queen’s Birthday award in 1995 [when she was made a Dame]. It was, she said, recognition of the work of the Mercy order.”
Ms Nolan noted that Dame Sr Pauline was the last surviving member of her immediate family – her sister Ruth having died just six weeks previously.
“Although Pauline could not attend the funeral in Wellington, she directed proceedings from Auckland, making sure that Ruth’s story was told and things were done properly.
“As I look back now, I have the sense that after that Pauline’s job was done,” Ms Nolan said.
The principal celebrant at the Mass at Takapuna, Bishop Patrick Dunn, also added a humorous touch to proceedings.
During the homily, Bishop Dunn said he had been away during the previous weekend at a Maori gathering in Otara.
“I was thinking that if this was a Maori gathering, I would be inclined to say that a great totara has fallen in the forest of Tane Mahuta. But I was thinking that while I admired many of Pauline’s strengths, I never quite saw her as the tallest tree in the forest!”
Again, appreciative laughter came from the congregation.
Bishop Dunn noted the many stories that had been told of Dame Sr Pauline, and added that on occasions like this “we bring our little memories and we reflect on them as we also reflect on ancient memories that are preserved for us in the Sacred Scriptures and that tell us something of who we are, what our life is about and what we are called to become”.
“Ancient memories form what anthropologists would call a meta-narrative. It is a big story that makes sense of our little stories. And this big story from the sacred Scripture inspired Pauline and gave meaning and direction to her life. It is a big story that is filled with hope. The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God.”
“Jesus knows us by name and loves us,” Bishop Dunn continued, “and that was Pauline’s faith and it brought grace and beauty and passion and fire to her life, all through it, the sense that the best is yet to come. That lies at the heart of the big story that inspired Pauline’s life.
“Even in later years as she suffered with the loss of sight and that loss of independence that we all dread, it still meant that she could retain that beauty, that wicked sense of humour, that mischievous side to her, but also her mind was so alert and interested in people . . . .”
After the funeral, Dame Sr Pauline’s mortal remains were interred at Waikaraka Cemetery in Onehunga.