Of the first women who came to join the Handmaids of the Precious Blood in May 1947 only one, Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity, persevered. Yet she was paralyzed below the waist from polio.
Perhaps, like the late Cardinal George who contracted polio at 13 and was thus rejected by a Chicago preparatory seminary, Sister Elizabeth also experienced rejection and discouragement towards fulfilling her religious vocation due to her disability. In the 1940s it wasn’t common to find communities that would accept someone who was handicapped. Our Founder Father Gerald said that he felt her spirit was “on wings“ and, as one of his spiritual daughters, she was to be among his first fledgling group of pious women that constituted the original Handmaids. It says something about her tenacity with joy that one would have to search the photo archives diligently for some time to find any photo of her face without a smile. Maybe when we find one we will have to share it!
Her secret to joy and that smile was her total grasp of our founder’s principle of gratitude, gratitude for everything. When she thought of all the things she might not be allowed to do because of her medical condition she instead remembered the rare thing she was being allowed to do, which was give herself totally to God as a gift in becoming a religious, a Bride of Christ.
If you haven’t been paralyzed you may not know how that affects every other aspect of your life. In one brief diary entry, she calmly and straightforwardly noted that she had broken a leg again – for the fourth time in nine years.
If you haven’t been paralyzed, and with the medical aids available in the 1940s, and haven’t felt the pull of heavy 7 pound steel and leather braces tied to your legs and embedded into and under your shoes you wouldn’t appreciate how maneuverable she was on crutches. Or even without the crutches! As a seamstress, her method of measuring a hem involved hopping down to the floor to scoot around the Sister being measured rather than having the sister climb onto a table. And she could play the organ. (Did we mention it was a foot pumped organ? Somebody else did the pumping.) Ever feel tired enough that you dragged yourself around with little energy? Imagine having to literally drag half your body around for the rest of your life, no matter your energy level or not. Yet she was involved in administration, formation, secretarial work, fund raising, sewing, music and every other aspect of religious life.
In the fall of 1953 there was a bad car accident one day in which one car the sisters were driving in lost its steering and brakes on the mountain roads. They went off the road, over the embankment, flipping the car over more than once. While most of the Sisters could climb out or were thrown out, one badly injured Sister could not get out of the back seat. Any attempts to drag her out resulted in great pain from her broken bones. It was Sister Elizabeth, the paralyzed one, who dragged her own body around the upside down car and then used her braced legs to prop the door open and hold it allowing others to more gingerly get the injured sister out. And Sister Elizabeth had two broken ribs and a black eye to deal with herself! That’s not handicapped. That’s handiCAPABLE!
Any Sister who had known her testified that she was always joyful, always grateful. As she aged, she ‘upgraded’ eventually to a wheel chair, even an electric one, which she delightedly zoomed around in, sometimes to the fretting of others. She only ran off the path and tipped over once according to ‘legend’. May she now be enjoying her eternal reward and the deepest delights of the beatific vision – braces traded in at long last and no longer needed in eternity.