She was born on September 5, 1926, in Peoria, Illinois. Her name was Phyllis E. Houlihan. Eighteen years after her birth, she entered the convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ). Five years later, she made her final profession of faith as Sister Roberta Cecile Houlihan.
I began writing my weekly Adoration Letter in 2006 and, over time, Sister Roberta became my all-time second biggest fan. My first biggest fan was, and always has been, my mother, Kathryn Williams. Sister Roberta was a close second to my mom.
I had met Sister Roberta in the mid-90s, when my son, Harry, took a chemistry class at Peoria Notre Dame High School. At that time, Sister Roberta was a counselor at the school. Until then, Harry had been educated at home and because we were not equipped to teach chemistry at home, my wife Georgette enrolled Harry in the class at Notre Dame.
During the time that Harry was in the chemistry class, Sister Roberta did everything she could to try to convince me and Georgette to enroll him as a full-time student at the high school. It was obvious from the beginning that one of Sister Roberta’s traits was her persistence and her unwillingness to give up on something that she believed in. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, but over time, she finally realized that we were not going to deviate from our original plan to keep our seven children home until they were ready to enroll in college.
I didn’t hear from Sister Roberta again until September 9, 2010, when she posted a comment to one of my articles on my website at Adoration.com. Here’s what she said in her comment:
Dear Harry and Georgette,
I am your newest subscriber, having submitted my request this afternoon (9/9/10) after speaking with Georgette by phone.
My comment is a huge Thank You for your wonderful publications, and to ask God to continue to bless both of you and your work to spread the Good News.
Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ
After that initial comment, Sister Roberta commented on almost every article that I wrote. Despite the fact that she knew that I was the one who was writing the articles, she always began her comments with, “Dear Harry and Georgette.” She eventually revealed to me that the reason she always included Georgette’s name was because she believed that it was because of Georgette’s influence that I was able to discover and share many of the inspiring insights that I wrote about in my articles. She was right about that in more ways than she really knew.
Sixteen months after Sister Roberta began reading and commenting on my weekly articles, she called me on a Monday, while I was at my office. It was the first and last time she ever called me on the telephone. She was the type of person who would have called me more often, but she didn’t want to interrupt my work or bother me. Her primary form of communicating with me was by private email and through her comments on my website. But on the day that she called me, she had something to discuss that was important enough to justify a personal telephone call.
When I answered the phone, we exchanged some small talk, and then she told me that she had read the article that I had just published. The title of the article was, A Punk Kid & The Student Teacher. In that article, I had discussed the fact that contraception is a grave sin. She quickly got to the reason for her call and said, “I have one question for you. Why is contraception wrong?”
I was caught off-guard by her question. My immediate thought was, Why would she ask me to explain to her why contraception is wrong? She already knows the answer to that question.
I reactively responded by asking her, You want to know why contraception is wrong? Without hesitation, she said, “Yes. In your article you talked about how contraception is a grave sin, but you didn’t explain why it’s a sin. Why is contraception wrong?”
After further discussion, I realized she wanted me to write an article explaining the reasons why the practice of contraceptive birth control has always been a mortal sin. She felt that if I took the time to explain the reasons, couples who practice artificial birth control might have a change of heart and start abiding by God’s laws concerning contraception.
I explained to her that it was a difficult topic to try to explain to people and that even if I tried to explain it, most Catholics would reject my explanation. She got pushy with me and insisted that I honor her request. That was the only time she ever got pushy with me or insisted that I do something for her. It was out of character for her to try to tell me what to do.
The following Saturday I wrote an article about our conversation with the title, A Retired Nun Challenges My Manhood. At the end of the article, I committed to writing a series of five additional articles in which I would attempt to explain why contraception is a grave sin. The title to those articles were, (1) The Unanswered Question, (2) A Reservoir of Love, (3) Honey Boys (4) The End Game, and (5) Wolves At The Door.
Those five articles were arguably the most important articles that I’ve ever written. They would have never come into existence if Sister Roberta had not insisted that I write them.
About three months ago, after seeing that Sister Roberta had not commented on any of my articles for several weeks, I called her to make sure she was okay. She was surprised to hear from me. I asked her if it was a good time for her to talk. She said yes and told me that her nurse was with her, changing the dressings on her leg.
Sister Roberta had retired from her job as a counselor at Notre Dame High School in 2006. She stayed in Peoria for six years after that, and then she moved to the Nazareth Living Center Retirement Community in St. Louis, which is a Catholic retirement home that offers its residents independent senior living apartments and long-term nursing care.
Shortly after Sister Roberta moved to St. Louis, she was admitted into the hospital for a heart valve procedure. After her surgery, she developed serious blood circulation problems in one of her legs and the leg had to be amputated above the knee. After the amputation, Sister Roberta was confined to an electric wheelchair which allowed her to get around, so she could help other residents who were less fortunate than she was.
When I called her on the phone and she made the comment about the nurse, I asked her how often the nurse had to change her dressings. She said that it had to be done every day because there was still an open wound where her leg had been amputated.
We talked for about five minutes and she explained to me that the reason that she had not been posting comments to my articles was because she had not had access to the internet for several weeks. She said that she didn’t like being in that situation because she was not able to read my articles and communicate with her friends by email. She said that she was still patiently waiting for the tech people to get the internet back up and running.
We talked for a little while longer and I sensed that she felt bad that she was taking up my time when she said, “Well, the nurse is done changing the dressings. Thank you for calling me. You made it much easier for me to endure the pain because you kept me occupied while the nurse was changing the dressings.” I asked her if it was painful every day when the nurse changed the dressings, and she said, “Oh yes, it’s very painful.”
I then asked her if she ever had any phantom pain in the leg that she lost. Phantom pain is when a person actually feels pain in the limb that was amputated. For unknown reasons, the nerves that were attached to the limb continue to send signals to the brain that there is pain in the part of the body that no longer exists.
I asked her how often she had phantom pain, and she said, “All the time.” When I asked her what type of pain it was, she said, “It’s a jabbing pain that always hits me like a bolt of lightning.” I then asked her if the phantom pain ever woke her up during the night, and she responded, “Yes, it drives me nuts! It gets so bad that it wakes me up several times a night.”
Over the years, Sister Roberta periodically sent me birthday and anniversary cards. She never mentioned in any of her cards, emails, or comments to my articles that she was in pain. She always acted as though everything was going well for her and always talked about the unfortunate conditions that most of the other residents in the retirement home were suffering from.
After that phone call, the next and last time that I heard from Sister Roberta was on March 15, 2020, when she commented on an article that I had published on the previous day. The title to the article was, A Crisis That Is Spiraling Out of Control. In the article, I discussed how important it was for all our national religious leaders to get together and ask the people of America to pray that we would be able to quickly come up with the right solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s what Sister Roberta said in her comment,
I have a new computer which is updated from 7 to 10, and I am having difficulty reading directions, etc.… We are not allowed to leave here or to have any visitors. This virus is threatening. Prayers are needed.
Loving prayers and love to all. Sister Roberta, CSJ
On Saturday, May 9, 2020, Georgette received a Facebook message from one of the members of her Facebook group, Prayer Makes the Difference. The message said that Sister Roberta had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was not doing very well. Georgette quickly posted a message on her prayer group and asked for prayers for Sister Roberta. Later that day, Georgette received another message that said that Sister Roberta had died. She was 93 years old.
While I did not reply to every message that Sister Roberta posted on my website, when I did reply, I started out by closing my replies with either “Harry” or “Take care, Harry.” There was a point after several months of reading and replying to her messages that I started closing my comments with, “Love, Harry.” That closing was highly unusual for me. I have never been the type of person who would respond to other people in that way. In my mind, the word “love” was always reserved for people who were members of my family, such as my wife, my children, my parents, or other members of my family that I was close to.
But I couldn’t help it with Sister Roberta. I expect that most people who got to know her would say the same thing. You couldn’t help but feel love and affection for her. She was warm, kind, and generous. She had a tremendous love for life, and she was always genuinely concerned about the well-being of others. She was a peacemaker at heart who tried her best to treat everyone she met as a friend.
Most importantly, she had a deep love for our Lord. She told me on more than one occasion that she trusted in Him completely and was willing to accept, without complaining, any suffering that came her way.
Now that Sister Roberta is gone, my only consolation is that she is no longer suffering and is with our Lord and her family. As my second biggest fan, she will now be in a position to influence and assist me in spiritual ways that she was not able to utilize while she was on Earth.
Catholic tradition tells us that at the end of the world, for those of us who are in Heaven, our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies. Our bodies will be perfect in every way and will appear to be the perfect age, which is 33 years old — the age that Jesus was when He died on the cross for our sins.
The picture of Sister Roberta that I chose to include with this article appears to have been taken when she was in her 30s. The picture shows what she will look like at the end of the world when her glorified body, including her amputated leg, is reunited with her soul.
I’m looking forward to seeing and enjoying her company and the company of my family, friends, and all the angels and saints who are in Heaven.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her…