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Sister Mary Emerentiana Cooney

List of Deceased Sisters

Date of Death 07/03/2020

SMSM SistersSister Mary Emerentiana, smsm

Monica Frances Cooney

Born: 5 April 1927

      Professed: 11 February 1949

Deceased: 7 March 2020


Early days       The readings of the Sunday Eucharist for the day after Sister Mary Emerentiana was called by God seemed to capture her life: call to set out and transfiguration.

God told Abram: “Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.” Surely no other SMSM sister has travelled as she has – not only to those many countries where our sisters work, but also to Czech Republic, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, Romania, Jordan, even Russia in her role at the World Council of Churches.

Monica Frances Cooney, the first born child of Francis and Margaret Cooney from Brydone, a small country town in Southland, New Zealand, answered God’s call to global mission. A letter from her mother (November 1945) expressed their sorrow “to lose her as she is our only daughter with four younger brothers,” but “[w]e give our consent to her entering seeing it is for God’s work.”

This missionary call was fostered also by the Mercy and Dominican Sisters with whom she did her schooling in Gore, South Dunedin and Invercargill.  Monica was dux twice at St Catherine’s, Invercargill, leaving there with a University Scholarship, and qualifications in shorthand and typing. Because of this skill and her intelligence, this young woman of 18 worked for a year in the office of the Prime Minister in Wellington, even taking her turn as a Hansard Reporter when Parliament was in session.

Heretaunga    In August 1946 Monica entered the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. As a novice she received the name of Mary Emerentiana. It was a name she herself chose, and which remained dear to her throughout her life. When in Rome, she would often go to pray at the tomb of this young virgin martyr.

Sister Mary Emerentiana took her first vows as an SMSM on 11 February 1949; in 2019 she celebrated with gratitude 71 years of faithful living. After profession she remained on the staff of the novitiate for a year as the sewing mistress, a talent she had learned at home from her teacher-mother who passed on excellent practical skills.

Sister was then sent to Sydney, Australia, to attend the Teachers’ Training College staffed by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart who recommended that she do university studies.  Returning to Auckland she stayed at Loreto Hall Training College, attended Auckland University College and graduated with a Master of Arts in English Literature, Diploma of Education and Secondary Teachers’ Certificate.

Mother Marie Jeanne d’Arc, our congregational leader at the time, asked her to go to Samoa.

Vaimoso         Sister Mary Emerentiana arrived in Apia in May 1956 with the mandate to set up a Catholic secondary school for girls, to be called St Mary’s College. She remembered her early SMSM years in Samoa as among the happiest in her life. A hard worker, a competent academic and an outstanding educator she rose to the challenge of establishing this school. She had a very personal and “hands-on” approach: entering all the examination records during the first seven years in her own distinctive neat handwriting; organizing and supervising those students doing correspondence courses from New Zealand; and, of course, encouraging a sense of discipline and “lady-like” behaviour in the girls...   Within a few years the school received recognition of its education standards and was granted New Zealand registration. It was through her insistence on the highest possible standards that St Mary’s gained the high reputation which it still enjoys.

Leadership      In 1968 Sister Mary Emerentiana was appointed Regional Superior of Samoa, then was named Provincial of the South Pacific Province in 1970. She holds the record for being provincial for the shortest time – only a matter of three months as the following year she was elected to the General Council, and for nine years was Vicar General for Sr Marie Ancilla. The friendship and collaboration which began then between these two gifted women has borne much fruit for the Congregation. In the 1980 General Chapter Sister Mary Emerentiana was elected Congregational Leader. She had been a member of the Commission which composed the Chapter now in our Constitutions on Mission. During her mandate as Congregational Leader the Constitutions were being re-written, and she wrote commentaries to accompany some chapters. SMSM still find these letters truly inspiring and readable, encouraging not preaching.  With the same motivation as when she was principal at Vaimoso, Sister wanted to give glory to God by bringing out the best in each person.

World Council of Churches (WCC)                  

The Vatican invited her to be its representative at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. From 1990-1997 Sister was the Roman Catholic Consultor at this Council, serving two terms in this capacity in the Mission and Evangelism Unit. She wrote that this work was an opening to a world beyond that of the Catholic Church, to the world of other Christians and other faiths. Working with brothers and sisters of other confessions and sharing in interfaith dialogue was very enriching. She considered it a special privilege to pray daily with other Christians, to share their theological insights and understanding of church, and to do this not only in Geneva itself but also in many national churches in the different countries that they visited as teams. While the staff at the Council appreciated her competence in dialogue, organization and editing, above all they greatly valued her gentle and wise presence among them.

To her dying days, she became a dedicated champion of the duty to pray and work for unity, not only among churches but among all peoples. When she left the WCC to return to Rome, a senior colleague described this Mary-like woman as “an icon”... It seemed so fitting that the last blessing she received the night before she died was from an Anglican chaplain at Mercy Parklands.

Work on the history and spirituality of the SMSM Congregation

After 7 years in Geneva, Sister Mary Emerentiana returned to Rome where she assisted with SMSM renewal groups and worked closely with other branches of the Marist Family. However the main focus for her during these years was to work on our history and spirituality, beginning with our early sisters and those who followed them in nineteenth century Oceania. Their letters show very clearly the nature of our vocation in the church – to be missionary, Marist and religious.

We SMSM are immensely grateful to her for all the material she has written over the years, especially the easy-to-read theme booklets on aspects of “the Marist spirit in our lives” and the brief biographies of early sisters. We can imagine her joy as she meets up with the many about whom she has so lovingly written. Her research and writings are a blessing for us all.

Holding very high standards for herself and others, she would be quite particular about the need for accuracy and not to perpetuate mistakes. In her outstanding memory and depth of knowledge she treasured so many details of our SMSM story.

When she died she had a number of unfinished projects. One dream she had was to finish collecting the letters of those sisters who were instrumental in beginning Pacific congregations of women in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and the Solomons, and to present each of these local congregations with the correspondence of their TORM foundresses.

A Beloved SMSM Sister         Years previously, when Sister left St Mary’s College, Vaimoso, the prefects of the time paid tribute to her, noting her Mary-like qualities. Through the rest of her life this gracious woman lived these beautiful attributes, greeting each person with warmth and attention, completely available to listen to whatever that person wanted to share.

An inspiring mentor, Sister had the capacity to listen with her heart, without judging, bringing to a situation compassion and wisdom. To so many, SMSM and others, she had the ability to invite persons to grow through their life situations, providing personal guidance, friendship and support, especially during challenging times.

She was loved by all who knew her. Interested in each sister and in contact with so many of us as well as many others around the world, her thoughtful little notes of greeting, encouragement or thanks brightened many a day.

This wisdom figure who radiated such joy has gone from our midst but her legacy remains. Who can ever know what she has done for us as a contemplative leader, a humble woman of gracious presence and such intellectual capacity? She was a woman who lived the Marist spirit, deeply rooted in God and close to Mary.

In late January she broke her hip in a fall. Surgery and a time of rehabilitation were successful, but, after returning to community, she had two other falls. Her third trip to Middlemore Hospital was on 2 March. There she continued to welcome the presence of any visitor or message received with a radiant smile. We could see that her strength was ebbing away. On Thursday 5 March she was transferred to Mercy Parklands where she gently breathed her last at 6.45 on the morning of Saturday 7 March.

The day after Sr Mary Emerentiana died, the Sunday Gospel was the transfiguration. “This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.” May she rest in the embrace of her Beloved, and in the company of Mary whose spirit guided her life, and of our pioneers who were so dear to her heart.