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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”