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Sister Mary Elizabeth Bonia

List of deceased Sisters

Date of death 26/03/2020

SMSM SistersSr. Mary Elizabeth Bonia smsm

August 12th, 1922 – March 26th, 2020

Elizabeth Bonia was born on August 12th, 1922, in the small town of St Mary’s Bay in Newfoundland, Canada.  Her father, John, was Superintendent of the Highways Department, and her mother, Elizabeth, had been a teacher in the Catholic schools before her marriage.

When Elizabeth was 15 years old, her mother died suddenly, after surgery.  This was a shock to the whole family – her father and nine children, ranging in age from four to twenty-one.  Elizabeth has written that it was after this that she began to think seriously about what she wanted to do with her life.  She read the life of Father Damian of Molokai and thought she would like to follow his example in taking care of people who had leprosy.  She wrote to various religious congregations.  The others sent her an application form, but the SMSM sent her “a warm letter suggesting that we correspond and get to know each other.”  Elizabeth liked that approach and began a correspondence that went on for 10 years while she stayed at home and cared for her younger siblings – and her father, who died of cancer in 1946.

Elizabeth entered the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary on February 11th, 1949, in Bedford, Massachusetts, and made her first vows there on August 15th, 1951. For nine years she remained in Bedford on the novitiate staff, serving as bursar, cook and gardener, and CCD organizer for three nearby parishes.

Finally, her dream came true and she was sent to Hansen Home in Jamaica, to work with people who had leprosy. She wrote, “In meeting the patients I was amazed at how joyful they were in spite of much discomfort.” Once again, she was the bookkeeper, but she was also able to teach the patients how to use some tools, and they began a project of making crutches.  They were paid for this work and were able to open bank accounts, so that they would have some money saved for the time when they would be discharged from the Home.

Elizabeth’s ability to see needs and then make plans to help others to improve their lives became a hallmark of so many of her future mission assignments, whether in Waltham, Memphis, Chicago or Louisiana.

Elizabeth returned to Massachusetts in 1966 and made her Second Novitiate. She also needed surgery.  While she was recuperating, the Provincial, Sr Mary Ambrose, asked her to serve on a planning committee for the building of Maristhill Nursing Home.  Later she was asked to be the first Administrator.  She took a correspondence course with LaSalle University and received an Associate Degree in Business Management in 1968.  She also studied at Babson College in Wellesley to obtain a diploma in Nursing Home Administration.  She served as Administrator of Maristhill from 1970-1974.

In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Bishop Dozier, of Memphis Tennessee wrote to our provincial superior asking if she would send some Sisters there. A community was opened in 1974 in North Memphis, and two years later Sr Elizabeth was sent there. 

One evening, a Sister who was a nurse was asked to go to a nearby home to deliver a baby.  Sr Elizabeth accompanied her.  The father was a member of a motorcycle gang.  While the other Sister delivered the baby, Elizabeth sat in the front room and talked with him. She later wrote, “I asked him what kind of neighborhood he wanted his child to grow up in.  He said, ‘One that doesn’t have to do drugs and prostitution.’ This was my first lesson in how I could help in this neighborhood as he shared his hopes for his family. I told him that the Sisters could help if they get the support of the people ... I told him I was interested in applying for grants to replace some of the dilapidated housing in a ten-block area, but I was concerned about vandalism.  ‘Don’t worry,’ He said, ‘let me know the addresses of the houses you will be working on and I will ask my motorcycle friends to help guard them.’ He was true to his word.

This was the beginning of the CODE North project initiated by Sr Elizabeth, that brought together businesspeople, contractors, young people learning skills and poor people putting in “sweat equity” – their labor – in order to eventually own their own home.  It also included congregate housing for the elderly.

Sr. Elizabeth returned to Waltham in 1983 when she was appointed Provincial.  She served two terms in the leadership of the North American Province. Then in 1989, after a time of renewal in Canada, she was sent to Chicago to research and open a new community that was centered on vocation awareness, ongoing formation for SMSM, and later the development of the Marist Volunteer project that was begun by all the branches of the Marists present in the USA.  Some volunteers shared the life of the SMSM community there while they went out to different ministries in the city.

In 1995, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious called for volunteers to go and work in one of the poorest places in the USA: Lake Providence, Louisiana. They wanted a bi-racial team, and Elizabeth and an African American Franciscan Sister were selected. They worked to bring about more cooperation within a racially divided area. In 1998 Elizabeth had to return to Massachusetts for knee surgery.  Afterwards she helped to set up the “Skills for Life” Program, which provided computer training for low-income residents in the Waltham area.

In 2001, Elizabeth suffered a stroke, and said that it was a “wake up call” that “something new was being asked of me...a new way of being over doing.”  In 2005 she moved to Marillac to receive more care.  Then in 2014, she moved to Maristhill Nursing Home – this time as a resident.  These last few years she has continued her spiritual journey there, welcoming anyone who came to visit. On the morning of March 26th, she left us with many memories to ponder of a woman with so many gifts and a humble, generous, joyful spirit who brought much life to our SMSM community and to many others over the years. 

Gratefully in Mary,

Sister Helen Muller, smsm                                          Sister Virginia Fornasa, smsm

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