Kunin: The life and legacy of Sister Elizabeth Candon

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin. It first aired on Vermont Public Radio.

When young Hamlet vented his anger against Ophelia, he shouted, “Get thee to a nunnery!”

That was what had happened to young women when they were spurned by lovers — their only recourse was to be condemned to a cloistered life.

Not so for Sister Elizabeth Candon. For 74 years, she happily served as a Sister of Mercy, living a life that was far from cloistered.

She had entered into the convent during one period, when sisters still had male saints’ names, and emerged in another — when quite suddenly, sisters shed both their habits of clothing and their habits of living. Few made the transition into the modern world more dramatically than Sister Elizabeth when she became a public citizen.

I first met her when I was in my 30s, had recently received my master’s degree in English literature from the University of Vermont, and given birth to my fourth child. I was ready to step back into the world myself — tentatively.

Sister Elizabeth hired me to be a part-time instructor at Trinity College — I was thrilled, not knowing I would be up half the night correcting 150 English papers.

I remember the tragic day of Kent State, May 4, 1970, when the National Guard fired on unarmed anti-Vietnam student protesters — and four were killed. I went to her office to ask that we cancel classes and have a teach-in. Without a moment’s hesitation she said yes.

How did this devout woman, who began her education in a Vermont one-room schoolhouse and received a Ph.D. in her favorite subjects — Shakespeare and Chaucer — become such a beloved figure?

For one thing, she gave herself the freedom to say what she believed to be true, whether it pleased the Catholic bishop or not. For another, she did not wait for her journey to heaven to translate the word of God into action here on earth. When she was appointed secretary of the Agency of Human Services by former Republican Gov. Richard Snelling, she seized the opportunity to serve the neediest of Vermont’s citizens — not by prayer alone.

She was not your usual rebel — pushing the envelope against established institutions. She might not have marched with the 99 percent Occupy Wall Street crowd, but in her heart, she was 100 percent with them.

Her words were never harsh, her voice never loud, her presence not large. But the aura that glowed around her was huge and powerful. She delighted others with her sparkling Irish humor, even as she lay on her deathbed, which did not seem like a deathbed at all. She had her visitors laughing with her at her string of hilarious observations; the oxygen tube that helped her breathe could not restrain her.

More than anyone I had ever known, Sister Elizabeth was ready for death. She knew she had lived a full and happy life; and in the process, she enabled countless others to live a better life too.

Sister Elizabeth Candon died Feb. 1.

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  • Ken Dean

    Sister Elizabeth Candon was a treasure, a living Vermont born Catholic Irish Saint, with quiet fire, inner light, gifted insights, pure heart, abiding love. She was a gem of a gem, from Alpha to Omega, her first breath to her last.

    Mother Teresa once said “There are no great deeds in this life, only small deeds done with great love.” Sister Elizabeth did her work with great love. She heard a call from God, she answered the call, and she lived the call fully every moment of her life.

    She was “A Quiet Lantern Of Light,” that was always there. She never waivered to see the good and the just task, that needed our fullness and our lives to meet it. She gave her fullness and 100% of her life to both.

    She was our Joan Of Arc that lived among us and showed us how. Met her one day in 1972 in her Office at Trinity when I was 17. It left a mark, still there. She really knew how to drop in the seeds, in her quiet sometimes invisible way. She knew how to moved mountains and souls, even without the person in front of her knowing exactly what she was up to. Her miraculous handiwork of invisible light to the mark at hand. Gentle, soft, and quietly bulls eye. Oh she was so good at it. So good.

    She made her whole life, and her whole life’s work, “Something beautiful for God.” She heard the call, answered the call, and lived the call, with purity, with love, with grace, and peace. Vermont and all of us are better because she took great visions and “called them forth.” Thank you Sister Elizabeth, for all you did for all of us, every day of your life. “Blessed are those of pure heart, for they shall see God.” That was you. Everyday, every moment, every breath of your life, from the center of God’s heart, to the center of yours. Amen