Among the gifts that I received on the occasion of my ordination were some binders of sermons of Fr. Charlie Chesebrough. I treasure them. Every now and again, when I am in a pinch, I open the binder and “cheat” a little. I usually credit him. It takes a lot of time and patience to read the things; his handwriting was at once amazingly beautiful and yet amazingly hard to read. I took the sermons with me on my annual retreat this past year back in February. I stumbled upon one that I would like to share. It is titled, “Life without a map.” In parentheses at the top, it says, “For Ginny.” Though he never mentioned her name in the sermon, it was written with the woman we celebrate today in mind. I must add here that Fr. Charlie and Mrs. Suttner were dear friends, and they, together with several other characters, like Fr. Don and my mother and many others, made St. Charles the most wonderful place for a kid to grow up in.
But in that sermon, which Fr. Charlie delivered in 2005 right around the time of Mrs. Suttner’s first fight with cancer, he said that, when we were younger, we tended to think that the first half of our lives would be the hardest, only to discover later that it is often later in our lives when we feel the heaviest force of the cross. We have unexpected detours and difficulties. Like cancer.
But, he wrote, all of our life is lived between Egypt and the Promised Land. That is honest to God truth. In baptism we leave Egypt, as St. Augustine said, and we Christians have a destination set before us, even if we don’t always have a full view of the map that would get us there. Fr. Charlie warned against our becoming settlers on this journey, settlers instead of pilgrims. It’s a sorry thing, he said, to be a settler—for a settler forgets that he or she has a mission and is on a journey, a journey home, a journey to the promised land, to heaven.
Mrs. Suttner was never a settler. She knew her mission on life was one so exciting she couldn’t stop, and she didn’t want to. I remember hearing that she was retiring in 2003, only to learn the next month that she had stepped up to serve on an archdiocesan level in helping other schools become as good as St. Charles. Likewise, her journey as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a disciple—it was never over. She was always moving in the direction of the Lord in the midst of all her vocations, and in that she offers us an important example.
And Mrs. Suttner, I think, knew something of the wisdom of St. Catherine of Sienna, who said, “all the way to heaven is heaven” for the Christian who lives his life right. Meaning that, yes, our lives are a pilgrimage to the Promised Land, but if we do it right, we can bring down a little heaven wherever we go as we make that journey. Mrs. Suttner brought down heaven right here at St Charles.
All of this is a way of saying that, it seems to me that Mrs. Suttner spent her life doing three important things: 1) teaching people about the Promised Land, 2) guiding people to it, and 3) giving people a taste of it. Let me share some of my memories of this, knowing that everyone here and thousands of others has their own set of memories.
I remember so many things about Mrs. Suttner. I remember how she would sing “I’m Getting Nothing for Christmas” each year in December and how she would frolic around with her Christmas light antlers. She could dance. I remember the day she went chasing after Fr. Charlie, who had driven his Mustang on to the school playground while we were out there for recess. I remember the anger in her face that day, probably because that was the only time I ever saw it. I remember my Mom taking my brother and me to her house one day to set up her computer….She had a hard time finding the on switch. I remember seeing her every single Sunday at 8am Mass and where she would sit. I remember seeing her in the confession line. I remember how she would periodically send me emails when I was in seminary, telling me she thought I was going to be a good priest. One time she said she thought I would be as good a priest as Fr. Charlie, and I took that as one of the highest compliments I’d ever received. I remember the cars she drove and the day she bought the fourth grade pizza. I remember how special we all thought it was when we got to go to her office to get something special out of the birthday box. I remember how good of a friend she was to my mother and how much Mom loved going to work. I remember how she smelled. She had the most wonderful smell.
You know, children watch things. I used to volunteer in the library each morning in my middle school years with Mrs. Gleason. I remember how Mrs. Suttner would walk the hallways each morning at St. Charles and unlock each classroom and turn on the lights. It was like clockwork: every morning at 7:20, she made her rounds. I think she did it so that no student or teacher ever had to arrive to a dark school. And I remember noticing more than once that, as she made her morning walk, she would look at the students’ artwork and math tests and third grade essays in the hallways. It usually took her a while to get all the way down the hallway. One time, as I remember now, my math test was hanging in the hall. My grade was an 87%, which did not merit a sticker. She came to me and said, “Michael, what happened?” And I knew I had to do better—for Mrs. Suttner. She was always raising the bar. But as she made her morning rounds, she would come into the library, where I was, and say good morning to me and ask how my classes were going. I think she even knew which girls I liked.
What I’m saying is this. Mrs. Suttner taught us about the Promised Land, led us to it, and somehow turned the school across the parking lot into a slice of it. For Mrs. Suttner, that is the mission of the Catholic school. I wouldn’t trade my days here for anything. After I heard the news of her passing, I spent some time looking at my old yearbooks. I cried. Because my years growing up here, along with thousands of other students, were filled with joys overflowing. It was because of people like Mrs. Suttner who made the atmosphere at St. Charles….heavenly.
Mrs. Suttner spent her life instilling the Catholic faith into thousands of students in this school and into her own family. Many will at least in some way owe their salvation to her. She was an amazing principal and teacher and wife (as our first reading described) and mother and grandmother and friend—all of that—because of her faith, because of Our Christ. She spent her life building up the church in our archdiocesan school and her family, and we are all the better for it.
Dr. Suttner, Lisa, Lori, Jennifer, and Jim, you all have the condolences and more importantly the prayers of this church. But we celebrate today a woman who lived her life well, whose example in faith will inspire us all for years to come. Now Mrs. Suttner finds herself in the Promised Land, in the halls of heaven. As our Gospel assures us, a room has been prepared for her and Jesus has turned on the lights and unlocked the door. And she is praying with us from there.