MANHATTAN — “You learn not from what people say, but what you see around all the time.”
Days away from her 100th birthday, Sister Canis Walsh, R.S.H.M. is looking back on everything she’s learned, everyone she’s met, and everything she’s seen during her century on this earth.
The Ireland-born nun comes from a town she calls heaven on earth, has seen every U.S. state but Hawaii, traveled the world and taught children from every age and background imaginable.
These moments and people are what has shaped her life, but her journey towards a religious one was not met with the same ease or enjoyment. At age 26, she left her small town and joined the sisterhood in New York state.
“My mother had cancer, and I had only one brother and I was loath to leave her,” Sister Canis told The Tablet.
“My father wasn’t particularly happy that I was coming,” she added, but he ultimately accepted her plans considering the close ties her Ireland parish had to Marymount College and Convent in Tarrytown, New York.
“Marymount College here [in New York] was started by Mother Butler from my hometown,” she explained. “My grandparents all went to school with Mother Butler, so it was not a new thing to come to join the order here because already I had a cousin and four people from my parish,” a parish set up by the great St. Canice, her patron saint.
Sister Canis’s mother would pass before she made her vows.
“I had no idea what the rules were when I entered of course, and one of the rules was you went wherever you were sent,” she said.
What Sister Canis found in New York was something that would change her worldview completely.
“I love New York. There’s something to do in it 24 hours a day,” she explained. “After Ireland, there’s no place like New York.”
And no place in the world would show her such diversity.
“They are people that God made in such a wonderful way,” she recalled. “I never saw a black person until I came to America. How wonderful that God could make so many different and all in His own design.”
Sister Canis would encounter that same diversity during her more than 70 years of teaching and working with youths in the Brooklyn Diocese and around the world.
“Children always have a unique way of saying something that does make you think, but it’s something you learn to adjust to,” she explained.
Sister Canis got her best learning experiences from these moments and the nuns who came before her.
“I was blessed by the wonderful older nuns that I had met all the way up,” she said. “They never taught by telling you how to do it. You saw by the example of their light. They work for others.”
Sister Canis recently spoke with a man who was taught by the nuns in Saint Catherine’s in Brooklyn. He would come to school without lunch and his teacher would sneak hers into his bag.
“She never went home to lunch,” Sister Canis told The Tablet. “We’re not talking theology. … They never taught those, they did it.”
Sister Canis learned to lead by example and act humbly, much like the Blessed Virgin — “She didn’t go around boasting she was the mother of God,” she said.
Now, after celebrating her Silver Jubilee, Golden Jubilee, Diamond Jubilee, and her Platinum Jubilee, Sister Canis will be having her first-ever birthday celebration as a nun.
“I was 70 years in religion and we never celebrated a birthday. We used to celebrate our feast days,” she explained. “So I would celebrate the feast of Saint Canice on October 12, which is the date he was canonized. Never birthdays.”
Now, her 21 great-nieces and nephews are mailing her hand-written cards, and Father Andrew King — Master of Ceremonies at St. Patrick’s Cathedral — is set to be the main celebrant at her birthday Mass on June 27. It’s a fitting tribute to Sister Canis, who was his teacher in the seventh grade.
While Sister Canis will be at Marymount when she rings in 100, her heart still remains in Ireland.
“Brandon Hill overshadowed my home and the river Nore ran through the land. The most picturesque beautiful place in the whole world is county Kilkenny in Ireland,” she said of her home.
“God was running out of place in heaven because there were so many good people coming up there, and he was having a big argument, wondering what he was going to do,” she said, sharing an old tale. “‘There’s no place, any place in your heavens or on the globe like the soil of Ireland,’ Saint Patrick told the Lord. Why not send down some of your angels and bring it up, and tag it here?”
And so, Sister Canis says, when we die, “we walk not in heaven, but on the soil of Ireland.”