Sr. Mary Fidelis Beck, OP

Beck-FidelisDominican Sister of Peace Mary Fidelis Beck, OP (97), died January 24, 2016, at the Dominican Sisters of Peace Motherhouse in Oxford, MI. She was born November 8, 1918, in Brookside, PA, to Paul and Jeanne Guillaume and named Louise Pauline Beck. She entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci (now the Dominican Sisters of Peace) in 1945 and professed her vows in 1948.

Sr. Mary Fidelis lived and worked at the Dominican Retreat House (Elkins Park, PA) for 62 years, transforming the 42-acre estate with landscaped gardens, heritage trees, flower beds and greenhouses. Thousands of retreatants brought home plants from her greenhouse as a remembrance of retreat along with words of encouragement from Sr. Fidelis. When the retreat house closed in 2006, Sr. Fidelis moved to Danville, PA, to the convent of the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where she created beautiful flower and vegetable gardens.

In 2013 Sr. Fidelis moved to the Oxford Motherhouse and served as the horticulturist for the grounds there. A woman of great simplicity and commitment to Dominican life, Sr. Fidelis was deeply devoted to the beauty of the natural world, its healing properties, and the capacity of natural things to speak of God’s glory.

In her reflection at the funeral Mass, Dominican Sister of Peace Anne Lythgoe, OP, said:

“A sower went out to sow some seed.” Sr. Fidelis was a sower of seed, a pruner of vines, a cultivator of the Earth, a gatherer and generous giver who shared the bounty of her harvest. She was fiercely convinced of Earth’s sacredness long before anyone else was talking about ecology or eco-spirituality. She celebrated Earth Day every day, long before it came into our vocabulary and consciousness. The sacredness of the Earth, and the beauty and glory she found in it, was the heart of her understanding of God. Not surprising, since her convictions and experience were rooted in her family’s closeness to the Earth as farmers in Williamsport PA. Her parents: Paul and Mary, or Jennie and her siblings: Luella, Lea, Marie, Olive, Lawrence, Clarence, and Harry, all carried that simple, straight-forward way, and “Louise” was no different.

Sr. Fidelis, (sometimes “Fifi” to her friends) gave most of her religious life to the ministry of retreats at the Dominican Retreat House in Elkins Park, PA. Her role was not in the retreat house but on the grounds. Everyone who came on retreat experienced the grounds as holy ground, a spiritual garden in which they could experience God as powerfully as in the chapel. I dare say that the grounds were sacrament, too – an outward sign given by God to give grace. Sr. Fidelis was the sacramental minister.

Trees she planted are now 60 feet high. More than 500 rose bushes still bloom there because she carefully placed them in just the right locations. The ponds and stream, the formal gardens, the greenhouse and farm were her ministry. Who among us who can say that the word we have preached remains visible long after we have preached it? Fidelis leaves behind a lasting legacy that blooms anew each year.

As you heard the Gospel text, could you picture Sr. Fidelis, saying, “NO, don’t put the seed there! That’s thorny ground; the thorns will choke it.” Or, “NO, don’t waste the seeds on hard ground! That’s not the way to do it!” If you did not know better, you would think she was just plain argumentative, but the reality was she had a large and intense personality that impelled her to perfection, to doing things “the right way” and, more often than not, she was right.

She had the capacity to bring together disparate beautiful things in a variety of ways. Flowers and potted plants, along with ordinary objects, made their way into arrangements that were amazing. Ordinary things that you or I might pass by became works of art in her hands.

As large a personality as she was, many times within the life of the community she seemed to sometimes be hidden. She did not say much and often disappeared from community meetings, off in her now famous golf cart to take care of some urgent pruning or planting. Congregational gatherings of great importance were not a high priority for her. I think she left those matters in other hands. She would always end a conversation with me with, “Now, Sister, we have to depend on God. Jesus and his blessed Mother will help us.”

She was a strong, (some would say strong-willed) woman who could work circles around the men who worked for her. One of her “boys” said they worked really hard because none of them wanted to admit that a 70 year old nun could work harder than they did. They found in her a mentor, a friend, someone to share questions with and receive stern yet compassionate counsel. To this day, they speak of her with the greatest respect.

It seems to me that the hardest time in her life occurred when the congregation realized that the retreat ministry at Elkins Park was no longer sustainable. Too much deferred maintenance, changing needs of the women who came, pressures of staffing and aging buildings. In 2006, when the retreat house closed and the sisters moved to Danville, PA, to live with the community of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Sr. Fidelis let go of what she thought of as her life’s work.

None of us will really know what it took for her to surrender that sacred ground to an unknown future. I wonder if her own spiritual storehouse of bearing witness to the natural cycle of death and new life, of seeing the changes of each season: winter to spring, summer to autumn, had given her the grace she needed to make this sacrifice.  I believe that when she was able to see this loss as God’s will, she could embrace it.

In Danville, Sr. Fidelis had an almost blank slate of possibility. The grounds, – though well cared for – needed something beautiful. She planted new gardens where there was nothing, using almost nothing. An old galvanized tub became a container for a rock garden dedicated to Mary. A tree stump suddenly bloomed. And that famous golf cart took her where she wanted to go.

Then in 2012, the congregation merged with the Dominican Sisters of Peace – another call to sow new seeds in a new place with golf cart in tow. Oxford was only the third ministry in her entire religious life, and she brought to it the same dedication to making the surroundings beautiful. It did not take long for her to have a greenhouse with the help of generous benefactors here.

In all three places of her ministry she attracted others who felt the draw of her personality and helped her in whatever work needed doing. She enjoyed faithful friendships all her life.

The letter to Timothy says it all: Preach the Word. Be ready in season and out of season. Sr. Fidelis, you were a preacher for all seasons. You were our sister, our friend, North Star to the boys, a true Dominican preacher whose Word of scripture was the earth itself.

May you now rest in God’s peace. And may we all receive a portion of your spirit.

Sr. Fidelis is survived by many nephews and nieces.

The Vigil Service and Funeral Mass were held at the Oxford Motherhouse on January 25 and 26, 2016, with burial in the Dominican Sisters Cemetery.

Memorial gifts in Sr. Fidelis’s memory may be submitted securely online or mailed to Dominican Sisters of Peace, Office of Mission Advancement, 2320 Airport Dr, Columbus, OH 43219-2098.

Posted in Obituaries

18 responses to “Sr. Mary Fidelis Beck, OP

  1. I grew up just about a block away from the Retreat. Often walked thru it, coming home from Lynnwood Elementary School. Sister Fidelis and my Mom were good friends. The Sister nursed my Mom’s orchids back to bloom in her greenhouse. As sweet a woman as one might hope a Sister would be….sorta ran the Dominican Retreat. Filled with Love, you could feel the Lord emanating from within.
    ~amen~

  2. Hi Sister. Won derful eulogy. My name is Matthew. I was one of her boys in late 70’s to mid 80’s. I just learned of her passing today. I don’t know how that happened. I’m sorry I was not at her funeral. When Elkins Park closed, Sister called me to transport her famous golf cart from Elkins Park to Danville. Of course I did! That was the last time I saw her, unfortunately. The life lessons and lassons of the power and beauty of the earth, amongst many other lessons, will stay with me for my lifetime. She was simply amazing. I will b forever grateful to her and I have no doubt Sister is with Our Risen Lord. Thank you Sister Fidelis. Please pray for me. Matthew.

    1. Matt!

      I remember you on our grounds when I was there. Thank you for your wonderful note. You were among a small and special group of her “boys” who grew up to live thoughtful and generous lives. She would be so proud of you and I am certain that she is praying for you and watching over you now. May peace br in your heart.
      Sr. Anne Lythgoe

  3. I REMEMBER SISTER FIDELIS WELL, AS I WAS A PROFESSED DOMINICAN AT ELKINS PARK ALSO,,,, MY RELIGIOUS NAME WAS SISTER MARY MANCINI, O.P THEN CHANGED TO SISTER PATRICIA ANN,O.P SISTER FIDELIS WAS A HARD AND PASSIONET WORKER,,,,I DON T KNOW HOW SHE WORKED OUT ON THE GROUNDS IN ALL SEASONS,,,,,,!!!!! I REMEMBER WHEN I WAS A NOVICE,,,, WE HAD TO BE OUTSIDE DURING THE DAY,,,,,,WALKING AROUND TO MAKE SURE WE HAD NO INTRUDER S WHO WERE TAMPERING WITH THINGS ON THE PROPERTY,,,,, SO ONE TIME ON MY TIME TO BE A GUERD I DECIDED TO SIT UNDER ONE OF THE MANY BEAUTIFUL TREES AND READ,,,,,,!!!! AND SISTER FIDELIS CAME RUNNING UP TO ME,,,,,,, SAYING OUT LOUD,,,,, GET UP,,GET UP YOU ARE SITTING IN IVY POISIN,,,,,, WELL NEEDLESS TO SAY I HAD THE IVY POISIN I GUESS ON MY HANDS AND THROUGH THE PROCESS OF IT OM MY HANDS I WOKE UP THE NEXT DAY WITH POISIN IVY BREAKOUT ON MY HANDS AND MY FACE…..MY EYES WERE SWOLLEN SHUT,,,,,JUST A MEMORY,,,,,SISTER WAS A HARD WORKER,,,,,,,, R.I.P. SISTER FIDELES !!!!!!!!!!

  4. Sr. Fidelis was a very special person at the Elkins Park Retreat House. I made the summer Sisters Retreat there for twenty years, it was a second home of sorts, and my retreat was usually a vacation when and where I could relax and enjoy the peacefulness of the retreat house and the beauty of the well kept grounds. I felt so rich for that wonderful week, and looked forward to it each year until it closed.

    I love flowers and plants; animals too! I often spoke to Sr. Fidelis about the variety of plants in her hothouses, and would come with my sister Bernadette after retreat to bring her pots and vases and such to use in her plantings.

    When the retreat house closed, and Sister left for Danville, I wrote to her every Christmas and sent my “Christmas letter” (two typed pages sometimes) that gave a little news about how my year had been. When news articles about Elkins park became available via the Philadelphia Inquirer, I would send them on to her. Sister always wrote back, as she did this past Christmas.

    However,I was unaware that Sister was so ill. It was only after a letter and some pictures that I had sent to Sister were returned to me that I found out that she had died. I will never forget Sr.Fidelis kindly manner and generous heart. I know that she is watching over us; I think of her often with much admiration and affection, but I must admit, I am sad that she is gone, even though it is to a better and most beautiful place with Jesus!

  5. Like Jim, I was one of the “boys” who worked at Elkins Park. I started right out of high school, working in the summers and whenever else I could as I started college. After 5 years and moving on with my life, I stayed in touch with Sr. Fidelis, sending a birthday card each year – my last, just this past November. I remarked in that card how it had occurred to me that I am now the age she was (58) when we first met – and I was 17. She would always write back, wanting to know how I was doing and asking about my family – and always encouraging me to embrace and return to my faith.

    She had a profound influence on my life. She helped me to plan a 25 year wedding anniversary celebration for my parents that was held at the retreat house in 1976. I was one of 3-4 boys who traveled with her to McLean, VA to do work at a retreat house located there. I shared her belief in the healing power of food and the benefits of supplements – she taught me much in that area.

    Her energy and spirit seemed inexhaustible. She truly lived her faith in the way she cared for the earth. She will be missed.

    1. Michael, I am so moved by your words. It is all true and every single day I am grateful for the time we spent with her. M. DeTroy is trying to arrange a reunion in Connecticut in the Fall for all of us. I hope this comes to pass. Jim

  6. And don’t forget the animals…she loved them too! I still can hear her calling for her cat at the greenhouse in Elkins Park! And that little cat would come running! She and “her boys” dug up two Holly bushes that my Mom had raised from little plants (and had grown too big for our row home lawn) and replanted them at Elkins outside the library. My Mom was forever grateful to Sr. Fidelis for giving her “babies” a permanent home in a beautiful spot.

    1. Peg, I think I may have been part of the detail that excavated those big Holly bushes. It was a great day and somebody probably invited us in for a coffee break. Thanks for reminding me.

  7. I am so grateful that Sister Fidelis was part of my life and I am proud to be one of the boys.
    She was a true friend.

    Love,

    Steven

  8. When Mary Lou called to tell me the Sister Fidelis had died we were in the middle of a blizzard here in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, I decided to go out to Oxford for the funeral on the 26th. I told my friends her that I felt there was something for me out there. I went and I did find something.
    Grieving at the loss of Sister Fidelis has been an incredibly rich experience. I have come to understand just how profoundly and simply she helped me embrace my own life. When we met in 1974 I became one of the ‘boys’. I’d been in school my whole life to that point and finally I was out doors in the brilliant Elkins Park autumn raking leaves on a magnificent lawn under towering tulip poplars. I was 28 and finally waking up to life. It was glorious to be young and getting strong. She made it possible.
    Over the next 8 years Sister Fidelis helped me build the foundation on which I have stood and which has enabled me to have a rich and fulfilling life. First she pointed out how important it was for me to stop smoking cigarettes. She just made a declaration! I didn’t quit on the spot but her serious concern motivated me to get that job done. Then she got me to start taking vitamins and other supplements every day and to avoid unhealthy foods (especially sugar!) Then she made it possible for me to take a few months off from work to complete my undergraduate degree at Temple.
    With my health and education in place I felt confident enough to start growing professionally. First I got the job as Music Director at Holy Angels Church. Then in 1977 I moved on to the Cathedral-Basilica of Ss. Peter & Paul where I was Cantor for the next 25 years including leading the singing during the visit of John Paul II. The day after being on TV and facing a million people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway I just returned to work probably doing the laundry on that following Monday after the weekend retreat. Everything was in balance.
    In 1982 I was offered a position at the Institute for Scientific Information at 3501 Market and I have been working in that business ever since. In 2013 when I wanted to retired they offered me an Emeritus position so I could stay around and consult. I accepted.
    None of this would have been possible if I had not come under the influence of Sister Fidelis. Singing at the Cathedral and travelling the world for ISI required incredible stamina and Sister Fidelis taught me how to stay strong and get the job done.
    A few days before she died, Sister Fidelis called me on the phone. She’d written a letter telling me she was very ill but she called because she could not remember if she’d actually written. So we had our last conversation. The last thing I said to her was “I love you.” The last thing she said to me was “I love you too, Jim”. Before that moment her love was expressed entirely in deeds. Everything was done in love. Everything was given in love. She gave me so much. We did not need to say anything.
    Since Sister has died I have awakened to the full realization of how much love I have experienced all these years. Sister gave me all of her wisdom and lent me her strength in loving generosity. She taught me how to love myself by looking after my physical self for it is only in this body that I can give what I have and what I have learned.
    So when tears of grief arise there is also a deep sense of joy at how much I have been protected by her Love all these years and gratitude for all the gifts that were offered and that I was willing and able to accept. After all, I could have walked away. Instead, I decided to do what she said hoping maybe one day I would turn into a good person like my beloved Sister. I’m happy I still have some time.
    Being with old friends from Elkins Park and meeting some new ones in Oxford I see how all of you helped Sister Fidelis person to emerge in your community. Those 62 years at Elkins Park and the following years have been a constant and mutual exchange among all of you. I am so grateful that you still welcome me. Love is the only way through. Thank you.

    1. Hello Jim, this is Matthew DeTroy. What a wonderful way you described Sister and how she was so important in your life. I just received this tribute to her from Mike Fitzgerald, one of “the boys” and was thinking how much she influenced my life back then in the 70’s. I’m so glad to hear you are doing well and I remember too what a wonderful voice you had and that Sister got you on the road to quitting smoking. So many memories. I’d love to talk to you again so please send me you contact info. I’m living in CT, married to Shawn (my girlfriend back then) and I have to children who are both married and now I’m a grandfather. Hope to hear from you soon. My cell phone number is 203-943-8262

  9. My deepest sympathy to all her sisters…What a joy and a privilege to have known her and to witness how she always kept growing…. especially in her nineties. Thanking Sister Anne Lythgoe for the beautiful, heartfelt obituary.

    1. Bonnie, so nice that you found the obituary and could write. What a treasure she was to all of us. I hope you are well.blessings.

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