Sister Mary Ann Walsh, woman of faith, writer, spokeswoman, dies at 68

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, 68, a writer in the Catholic press and longtime spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, died April 28 in Albany, N.Y. She is pictured in a 2012 photo. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) -- Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who went from hometown schoolteacher to Vatican correspondent, lived out her drive to be a writer even in her last days. She died April 28 in her hometown of Albany, New York, after a battle with cancer.

Sister Mary Ann, 68, had stepped down last summer from her role of 21 years in media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the last six years as director. Just as she began a transition to a new job she quickly came to love -- writing for America Magazine as the Jesuit publication's U.S. church correspondent -- she learned that she had fast-growing metastatic cancer and moved home to the motherhouse in Albany where she had entered the Sisters of Mercy 50 years earlier.

Over the next nine months as her health declined, Sister Mary Ann wrote obliquely about her own impending death, such as in a piece about the "underutilized sacrament of anointing of the sick," shortly after she hosted a gathering of friends as she received the sacrament herself.

Her articles included observations about journalism, politics, civility in society, the effects of youth sports schedules on families that attend church and many other topics. In her last blog, published March 25, Sister Mary Ann tackled the topic of the need for mercy, as Pope Francis declared a jubilee year of mercy beginning in December.

In interviews with Catholic News Service and for the Sisters of Mercy, she talked frankly about the progression of her cancer and the inevitability of its outcome, though never complaining and always with appreciation for the outpouring of support she was getting.

As word spread of her death, tributes were effusive from people who knew and worked with Sister Mary Ann.

Reporters, colleagues and bishops praised her deep faith, her determination, her trail-blazing as a woman and a nun and her abiding friendship.

In addition to being a good friend and gifted writer, said Susan Gibbs, a public relations professional who was formerly spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, Sister Mary Ann "helped break the marble ceiling for women in the church."

Phil Pullella, senior correspondent in Italy and the Vatican for Reuters told of his friendship with Sister Mary Ann that began when she was a reporter in Rome for Catholic News Service.

"I always called her 'Mother Mary' and she always called me 'my son,'" he said in a note to CNS. "Mary Ann was an exceptionally generous woman. ... When she moved to America magazine, she wrote some of the clearest insightful, informed and entertaining columns about the U.S. church that I have ever read."

Archbishop John Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City, who will become archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in June, visited Sister Mary Ann in March, presenting her with the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor given by the Catholic Press Association. He is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Communications.

Archbishop Wester said he has "the deepest respect for her integrity and her love for the church. She was a clear thinker who could write persuasively and in a captivating manner."

Like many others, he commented on her "clever wit" and her ability to "read people's hearts with ease."

Sister Mary Ann was born in Albany, Feb. 25, 1947, the only daughter of Irish immigrants. After attending local Catholic schools staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, she entered the order as a 17-year-old. She earned degrees in English at the College of St. Rose in Albany and began teaching elementary and then high school.

But the writing bug, which had led her as a child to stay up late, scribbling beneath the bedcovers under the light of a gooseneck lamp, soon led her to a reporting job at The Evangelist, newspaper of the Albany Diocese.

She went on to become a Vatican correspondent for Catholic News Service and then its media editor. In those roles, she traveled the world with Pope John Paul II and sat down for interviews with movie stars, including Raul Julia, Gene Hackman and Bruce Willis.

"Rome taught me how to cover Hollywood," she told CNS in interviews in January. "They're both complete bureaucracies."

Her career path led her to the media relations staff of the USCCB, where she managed arrangements for press coverage of World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, for several other visits to the U.S. by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and for the ins and outs of news about the U.S. church, from the sex abuse crisis to the annual meetings of the U.S. bishops.

In addition to her news and blog writing, Sister Mary Ann also was the author or editor of several books about Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as producer of two videos.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, retired archbishop of Denver, who was there at the time of World Youth Day, said in a note to CNS that he was impressed by her quick grasp of the potential of the event, especially "of the human and spiritual attractiveness of Pope John Paul II among young people. On both counts, she was among the early few. I felt that the pope and Sister Mary Ann were kindred spirits. They were both hopeful for the future."

Her most recent boss, Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of America, insisted on keeping Sister Mary Ann working as much as she wanted to through the course of her illness. Some friends observed that at times it seemed like the need to write was keeping her alive.

In a note to CNS, Father Malone called Sister Mary Ann "a valued colleague and friend, a writer of exceptional talent and insight, whose faith animated her entire life. As the first female religious to serve on the editorial staff of America, Sister Walsh was a trailblazer even in this last phase of her professional life, a career that spanned four impressive decades. Our readers, especially, will miss her expertise, her generosity and her honesty."

Mercy Sister Kathleen Pritty had been friends with Sister Mary Ann since they joined the religious order at about the same time. Both graduated from Vincentian Institute, the Albany high school that was staffed by the Mercy sisters.

Sister Kathleen said Sister Mary Ann remained steadfast as she worked within the church during tumultuous times, including the scandal of sexual abuse cases and the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

"She has been so faithful to the church," said Sister Kathleen, observing that it surely was difficult for her friend to be a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference during such times. "The church has not had a more faithful daughter than her."

Sister Mary Ann's niece, Maura Sommer, said in an email to CNS that she was "thankful that God ended her suffering and I am certain that she went through the E-ZPass lane at the gate (of heaven). Mary Ann met her challenges head on with strength and faith and has now started a new chapter -- or probably in her case, her next book, 'Heavenly Reward.'"

Across the Atlantic, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, carried a story on Sister Mary Ann's death, focusing on her love of journalism.

Author Giulia Galeotti called her "one of the most volcanic, determined and calm women I ever had a chance to dialogue with."

She concluded the piece by saying "it was thanks to Sister Walsh that the world got to know another face of the U.S. church -- that of a united, smiling, welcoming and proud church ready to open itself and to dialogue after the storm of the (sexual abuse) scandals."

Norma Montenegro Flynn, assistant director of media relations at the USCCB, commented on the combination of Sister Mary Ann as a professional mentor and source of spiritual strength.

While going through a difficult pregnancy, Montenegro said she asked Sister Mary Ann about whether she could have a blessing for her unborn baby.

"Her face lit up and she encouraged me to invite family and friends and work friends. She then blogged about it."

After assuring Montenegro that she was keeping her in her prayers, once the baby was born Sister Mary Ann rearranged her travel to be sure she could attend the baptism of her son.

"She had bonded with my baby through prayer," Montenegro said. "She had a heart of gold and a sweetness and caring heart that was genuine. I will always be grateful to have worked and learned from her. Professionally, she always strived for perfection, and through her example she inspired me to give the best I can and do the best I can."

- - -

Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden in Rome.

Apostolic visitor outlines plans for expansion at Medjugorje shrine

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) -- The Polish archbishop tasked with overseeing Bosnia-Herzegovina's Medjugorje shrine has outlined plans for expansion, including ...

Pope names administrator as Indian bishop investigated for alleged rape

MUMBAI, India (CNS) -- Pope Francis has accepted the request of an Indian bishop accused of raping a nun to be relieved of his duties during the investigation. In ...

In letters to German cardinal, retired pope defends way he stepped down

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Retired Pope Benedict XVI expressed his displeasure with the way a German cardinal publicly criticized his stepping down as pontiff, ...

Thousands of Hispanics expected in Texas for Encuentro summit

Fort Worth, Texas, Sep 20, 2018 CNA/EWTN News.- As many as 3,000 Catholics of Hispanic background are expected in Texas this week for the National V Encuentro, ...

Media reporting Vatican-China agreement could be signed in late September

HONG KONG (CNS) -- The long-awaited Sino-Vatican agreement on the nomination of bishops is expected to be signed in September, reported several media ...

Church plans third-party abuse reporting system, code of conduct

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pledging to "heal and protect with every bit of the strength God provides us," the U.S. bishops' Administrative Committee Sept. 19 ...

Be grateful to parents, never insult them, pope says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Honoring mothers and fathers means being grateful for the gift of life and Christians should never insult anyone's parents, Pope ...

Canadian cardinal: Women should help screen, train priest applicants

Poznan, Poland, Sep 18, 2018 CNA.- Increasing the role of women in screening and training priests is among the steps that should be taken to prevent future ...

Vatican delegation will travel to China this month to finalize agreement, Chinese newspaper reports

Beijing, China, Sep 18, 2018 CNA.- A newspaper tied to the Chinese Communist Party reported Tuesday that a delegation of Vatican officials will head to ...

Cardinal Marx says mistakes were made, calls for change in German church

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German bishops' conference, admitted that mistakes were made in the German church's handling of sex abuse of minors ...

Church crisis response: Healing Masses, listening sessions, fasting

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In response to the sexual abuse crisis in the church, Catholics are praying for victims, talking about their frustration and anger, ...

Pope names Minnesota priest as auxiliary bishop of Hartford

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope Francis has appointed Father Juan M. Betancourt, a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as auxiliary bishop ...

Listening church: Pope gives new vision for Synod of Bishops

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Synod of Bishops increasingly should be a structure for listening to the Catholic faithful, demonstrating a local bishop's concern ...

Director of Courage releases letter on Penn. abuse report

Washington D.C., Sep 17, 2018 CNA.- Courage International, an apostolate to support people with same sex-attraction in leading chaste lives, has issued ...

Richmond bishop apologizes to victims; commits to opening, reviewing files

RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) -- In celebrating the Diocese of Richmond's first Mass of Atonement for victims of abuse Sept. 14, Bishop Barry C. Knestout apologized ...

Stanford University to remove saint's name from some properties

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- California's Stanford University will strip the name of 18th-century Franciscan friar, St. Junipero Serra, from some of its properties ...

Catholic Charities distributes disaster relief to areas hit by Florence

RALEIGH, N.C. (CNS) -- The Carolinas were hard hit with record rainfall and flooding rivers from tropical storm Florence since it made landfall Sept. ...

Archbishop Lori assures diocese he's with them in journey toward healing

WHEELING, W.Va. (CNS) -- In his celebration of Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling Sept. 15, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said ...

Bishop takes a (sky) dive to get pilgrims to Lourdes

HOVE, England (CNS) -- "The Moth has landed," tweeted the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton. The tweet Sept. 14 and a similar post on the diocesan Facebook ...

Words, promises are not enough to prevent abuse, archbishop says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Inviting presidents of the world's bishops' conference to the Vatican to discuss abuse prevention reflects an understanding that ...

Pope praises Capuchin order's charism of authenticity, simplicity

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Capuchins are called to be men of peace, reconciliation and prayer and to be close to all people, Pope Francis told members of the ...

Path to healing starts with seeking forgiveness, Cardinal Wuerl says

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A "Season of Healing" for sexual abuse survivors began in the Archdiocese of Washington with a Sept. 14 Mass at the Cathedral of St. ...

Archbishop McCarrick's unofficial role in Vatican-China relations

Vatican City, Sep 17, 2018 CNA.- Following reports that the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China could be about to sign an agreement ...

Archbishop Chaput: When we forget faith, we forget our humanity

Spokane, Wash., Sep 14, 2018 CNA.- When man tries to cling to reason and separate himself from faith, he forgets who he is and loses his source of hope, ...

Pope Francis warns priests against living a double life

Palermo, Italy, Sep 15, 2018 CNA/EWTN News.- During a day trip to Sicily Saturday, Pope Francis told priests and religious to fight their vices and strive ...

What is the pontifical secret?

Vatican City, Sep 14, 2018 CNA.- Following the allegations made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò about the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, ...

Vatican publishes list of synod participants, including papal nominees

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- To the list of members of the Synod of Bishops elected by national bishops' conferences, Pope Francis added cardinals from 14 countries, ...

Addicts and their loved ones talk about life with opioid addiction

ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) -- It was a Saturday night, and Billy was eating pizza and watching a sporting event in the basement bedroom of his residence, a ...

Signers of letter hope Vatican meeting will bring needed steps on crisis

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Signers of an open letter from Catholic women to Pope Francis urging "truth" and "transparency" on the growing sex abuse crisis expressed ...

Community 'overwhelmed and shell-shocked' after gas explosions, says pastor

LAWRENCE -- Volunteers at St. Patrick Church's Cor Unum Meal Center were serving dinner when multiple natural gas explosions and fires broke out in homes ...

Down to earth: Vatican brings together world's meteorite curators

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Rocks, mineral debris and even dust from space are kept in special collections, museums and laboratories all over the ...

Algerian martyrs to be beatified in Algeria Dec. 8

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The beatification of 19 martyrs of Algeria, including the seven Trappist monks of Tibhirine, will be celebrated Dec. 8 in Oran, ...

'Anything but a picnic' - Cardinal Dolan on the Church's summer of scandal

New York City, N.Y., Sep 14, 2018 CNA.- Cardinal Timothy Dolan has spoken about how the extended sexual abuse scandals facing the Church have taken a ...

Restoring and reimagining: Transformation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross

BOSTON -- Considered by many to be the heart of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross is the largest Catholic church in New England, ...

Archdiocese says Cardinal O'Malley will personally review all abuse letters

BRAINTREE (CAN) -- The Archdiocese of Boston has announced changes to the way it will process and respond to letters addressed to Cardinal Séan P. ...

CM receives $2.5M grant from Yawkey Foundations

West Roxbury -- Catholic Memorial, a college-preparatory school for boys in grades 7 to 12, announced Sept. 5 that they have received a $2.5 million grant ...

Father Christian Ohazulume removed from ministry

BRAINTREE -- The Archdiocese announced on Sept. 11 that it had removed a priest from ministry after receiving an allegation that he sexually abused a ...

From Cardinal Seán's blog

This week I am in transit to Rome in anticipation of the next meeting of the C9 Council of Cardinals. So, I have asked Vivian Soper to share some reflections ...

Kavanaugh's birth control comments spur controversy -- What did he say?

Washington D.C. (CNA) -- Opponents of Judge Brett Kavanaugh have suggested that a reference to birth control pills as "abortion-inducing drugs" during ...

Missouri to enforce abortion regulations in wake of appeals court ruling

Jefferson City, Mo. (CNA) -- Missouri's health department announced Monday that it will immediately being enforcing state laws regulating abortion clinics ...