Sister Virginia Elizabeth Down, CSJ
Sister Tesa referred to the fact that Ginny and I became friends during our time as Regionals. Ginny and I had just talked about that over these past few weeks. We both remembered the night I was elected. She called me – a relative stranger – and congratulated me and said she knew it was also going to be hard for me because I had to leave the parish I loved. She explained that she had had to make that same decision so she understood. She also promised she would be there for me however I needed her. From that moment, a beautiful friendship began.
Relationships were sacred to Ginny. I think each of us who knew her in our own life’s journey can validate that. As I was looking over her profile of where she had lived and where she had worked, I smiled. I knew everyplace not because of a list but because of the stories Ginny had told me of the people she had lived and worked with.
She was so proud that she was in the first fifth grade and thus the first graduating class of St. Robert Bellarmine School, Bayside where our Sisters lived upstairs- some of whom became her friends for life. She was in touch with “kids” with whom she graduated and she loved to follow them on Facebook. The Mary Louis Academy held another soft spot in her heart. She was a proud alum and rejoiced when other classmates were in touch. Her undergraduate work was a patchwork quilt of many experiences since she found herself in the transitional days of our formation program that included Brentwood College, St. Joseph’s and living in a local community. For her, she treasured the days in St. Agnes, DeGraw Street where she met her dear friend, Mary Parasa, and began to understand living in community with Sisters of various ages and personalities.
She began her ministry by teaching Social Studies in Immaculate Heart of Mary, Brooklyn and also in St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor. By this time, she already knew she wanted to focus on religious studies as her ministry and was delighted to receive permission to study in Providence College. (Just this past August when we were visiting our Sisters in Watertown, NY we met two of Ginny’s former Providence classmates who had great memories of their time together.) She utilized her studies first as a religion teacher in Sacred Heart Academy, then as the Director of Religious Education in St. Clare’s parish, Rosedale and finally as Parish Minister in Our Lady of Good Counsel parish, Inwood. (it was very evident how loved she was as a Parish Minister from the number of people who came to Ginny’s wake yesterday afternoon and the stories they told about her kindness and expertise in helping them in various ways.)
It was during this time that she had her first bout with breast cancer. In 1984, she began this journey which she faced bravely. She loved her doctors and did everything they told her to do, painful as it was. She continued to work as much as she was able. She wondered as to why she went into remission while her good friend Susan Driscoll who was diagnosed around the same time never went into remission and went to God instead. In all things, Ginny was faithful and grateful. She used what she endured to help others. And when the dread disease returned in 2013, she started the process again. Once again, she went into remission.
Struggling with her illness never held her back from life. In 2006, she began her ministry as Regional Superior of Region 3, Queens. I think the words of one of the Sisters in her Region sums it up. When I became Regional (five years after Ginny), this Sister said to me: “Look at Ginny Down – and learn! She really knows what it is like to be a Regional.” She was humbled by this statement and by comments from other people who told her how much she had helped them. (By the way, Ginny also had a ”second job” – she served as chair of the Board in Fontbonne Academy!) This did not mean she was not honest about herself; she was. She always reminded us she was an introvert – so give her time to think before expecting a response or reaction in a discussion. She also warned us never to give her the bill to figure out the tip because she was not good with numbers! Seriously, she was someone who combined humor, loyalty, realism, relationship and faith in every aspect of her community and ministerial life. Each of us who served with her on both her Regional teams treasured her gifts and the generosity with which she shared them.
Before I end, I want to acknowledge her first gifts and her last gifts. Her family was her first and constant gift. She treasured memories of her parents, Margaret and Fred, as well as those of her aunts and uncles. As she was good with our aging Sisters, she was good with her own family members. Joanne was her partner in childhood and as they grew older, Joanne’s family became the joy of her life: Thomas, Charlie, Sarah, Lili and Alice – each of you brought her delight and brought us some wonderful stories.
And her last gifts were centered here in Brentwood and in Bayshore. After she finished her term as Regional, she served as Director of Pastoral Care in St. Joseph’s Convent for a few years. During that time, in consultation with others, she developed and coordinated the Pastoral On-Call Response Team (better known as the Wonder Women). These women fulfill the awesome responsibility of accompanying our Sisters to the ER when there is a need. Ginny had as much care for the women as she did for the Sisters. She was only sorry she didn’t have enough time to work as a volunteer in the Immigration Clinic or with the refugees.
In addition to congregational work and supported by her loving community in Bayshore – first Caryn, Joanna and Doris and then Caryn and Kate, she served the people of St. Pat’s as a faithful member of the 6:30am Mass community, as a lector, as a member of the RCIA team and of the Soup Kitchen team. (Another sidebar: one of Ginny’s friends from St. Patrick’s parish told me that before Ginny arrived, people came to the 6:30 mass; Ginny made them into a community.)
In the midst of this beautiful life, cancer struck again. This time, there was no remission. Since 2021, Ginny fought valiantly to stay healthy while doing everything the doctors advised her. No longer did we see Ginny at masses and meetings – and if we did, she had her mask on – and her hat, of course. She was a digital expert, communicating with friends from all periods of her life through Facebook. She thanked God for livestream and zoom because that is how she continued to participate in the community to which she had so generously devoted her life. She did come to Kathy Loughlin’s funeral a few months ago because she felt well enough to do so and she wanted to pay tribute to Kathy -but also to reverence what she referred to as “that special party bond.”
The expression “as we live, so shall we die” took on special meaning for all of us who loved Ginny and who had the privilege of accompanying her in these last few weeks. She tried to stay at home and in control for as long as she could but then when she felt her care was becoming a burden and a worry to others, she opted to go to St. Joseph’s convent where she was cared for in loving ways through both palliative care and hospice. She welcomed everyone and was at peace.
She had hoped that she would have more time but as she said so many times: “It is what it is.” She knew she was loved by people and by God and she trusted she was going home to God.
In closing, I will read from her retreat notes of 1992:
I believe that the time will come when my journey here shall be done and I will see the God who is LOVE face to face…
And I shall come to know God and my truest self…
My life then shall be timeless.
I believe that death is birth to the life offered to each one by the God who fashioned us.
I believe that death is the WAY to One who is TRUTH and LIFE… to Jesus the Christ.
Phyllis Esposito, CSJ
Sister Virginia Elizabeth Down, CSJ died on October 10,2023 in the 56th year of her religious life.