By Father Christopher R. Heanue
Her name was Caroline and she was known by all of the residents in the Richmond Hill section of Jamaica Avenue as the lady with the broom. Caroline was a staple of this southeastern section of Queens, doing her best to keep the streets and street corners clean of any and all trash every day.
Caroline was a simple woman who had a pretty rough upbringing. The trauma she suffered in her youth stayed with her for her entire life and she never truly recovered from it. This trauma changed her forever. However, Caroline kept her own innocence, and she exuded joy and love for her neighbor and neighborhood.
Caroline had faith – and practiced it more than regularly. A woman in her late 70s, she walked from her third-floor walk-up apartment on 107th Street to our parish on 111th Street for the 5 p.m. Vigil Mass on Saturdays. She would promptly return for the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday. After shaking the hand of the priest presider, she would walk home and return again for the noontime Mass.
Caroline had “her seat” – first pew, next to the lector, where she could see the priest presider and smile at him whenever they made eye contact. She would watch everyone approach for Holy Communion, as if she were the Queen of Richmond Hill. And she greeted everyone with her smile as they approached the altar to receive our Lord, Jesus Christ.
In the Book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over the earth, over the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, wild and tame. In this brief passage, much is learned about stewardship and care for God’s creation. The human race receives its dignity and worth from God. We are entrusted to be good stewards with God’s creation in our everyday lives.
Caroline was a true example of this call to be a good steward of God’s creation. From walking the streets to attending parish parties, she would be equipped with her broom and dustpan in order to do her part for her community. She was also equipped with a whistle, which she would proudly blow if she ever saw anyone litter on the street! Her simple act of sweeping reminded us of the care and concern that we should have as stewards of God’s creation.
There are many paths to holiness, to sainthood. The saints, like Mother Teresa remind us to do “small things with great love.” In the Gospels, Jesus tells us that humility is the way to holiness and that we are called “to serve” and not “to be served.” Caroline exemplified and personified this Gospel message.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
Caroline passed away in her apartment on a Tuesday this October. Her example of doing small things with great love will never be forgotten by this humble servant and by the many residents of Richmond Hill.
She was 80 and still attending Mass in her extraordinarily regular way. Her seat is now empty and there is no one to offer that smile to the priest presider, or communicants as they approach the altar. But her impact on our lives will remain in our hearts forever.
And it is my prayer that as Caroline approaches the gates of heaven, she is greeted by St. Peter proclaiming, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did her job well, rest now from your labors.”
Father Heanue is the administrator of Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill.