Faith and fun, secrets to a long life

Julie Filby

Isidora and Jack Shirkey didn’t always have a car while they were raising their three boys in Aurora. Isidora was a stay-at-home mom and Jack a medical technician. But even when finances were tight, they managed to keep date night a priority.

“I used to babysit during the day, all week long, to make money so we could get a babysitter on Saturday night,” Isidora, 100, reminisced from her room at Mullen Home where she has lived the last seven years.

The couple, married in 1941, would take the bus from their home to the University of Denver to watch the Pioneers play hockey, her favorite sport. Another one of their favorite events was the National Western Stock Show. She hasn’t missed a stock show since 1941, she said, including a trip earlier this year.

“I go out more now than I did before I lived here,” she said. “Every day we’re busy here.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate Mullen Home supported by a professional staff and more than 60 volunteers, take residents shopping and to plays and restaurants; as well as surprise them with what Isidora called “mystery trips”—trips where the residents don’t know where they’re headed till they get there. Destinations have included the mountains and churches around the state. They also have activities such as crafts, games, exercise and baking.

“This is a wonderful place,” she said.

“I don’t feel 100,” she added, “heavens no, I feel like I’m 50 or 60.”

Isidora is a member of a small group—just .02 percent of the population, or 55,000 who have celebrated a 100th birthday, according to an April 2014 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Four-fifths are female, most widowed, and 17 percent live in poverty, with a mean retirement income of about $12,200 per year. Isidora is currently the only centenarian at Mullen Home.

The Little Sisters have cared for Denver’s elderly poor at their Highlands location for 95 years. The 10-acre campus includes 17 apartments for independent living, five assisted living units and 42 intermediate nursing care rooms. The sisters live in the home and are available to residents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure attentive care.

“I have everything here!” Isidora said, including the opportunity to continue to live out her faith.

She attends daily Mass at the home’s chapel, a commute that’s much easier than it was growing up in the small town of La Jara outside Alamosa where she was the 11th of 12 children of Ramonacita Gonzalez, an immigrant from Spain, and Encarnacio Romero from New Mexico.

“We’d walk to church with mother every Sunday, four miles, to the great big church in Capulin,” she said, where she and her mother sang in the choir.

“The church had a beautiful marble alter,” she continued, “I wish I could go see it now.”

Her father, a sheep herder, would spend months away at a time. Seven of the couple’s nine daughters became nuns. They prayed the rosary together as a family.

“Every blessed night,” she recalled, “we would kneel down with mother and pray the rosary.”

Today Isidora prays the rosary two or three times a day.

“Mary’s the Mother of God,” she said of her devotion to the Blessed Mother. “She’s my saint, I pray to her all the time.”

She prays mostly prays for her family, she said, her sons Michael and Larry, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and one on the way—as well as for Jack and her son Terry who have died. And she thanks God for her life and her good health.

“I have no pain,” she said, other than some occasional arthritis in her finger. “I’ve had a great life. I always made sure I had fun, whatever I did and wherever I went, and I have a lot of fun here at Mullen Home.”

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.