(Homily of Fr Mel Loftus at the requiem Mass for
Sr. Dity Von Spaun, SSI)
“The span of one’s life is seventy years or eighty for those who are strong”
Our Sr. Dity was strong. In fact when we think of her the words: determination, strenght and willpower come to mind immediately. But do such words paint the full picture? There was another side to our sister Dity, which further enhances our memories of her
This was a very different county in 1966, and Hlabisa was a very small place, when two young women, Dity and Marlene, came to work here as missionary nurses. It is never easy to start something new: back in the 1960’s mobile clinics operated by nurses and primary health care were new! It took great courage and perseverance for these two young women to launch such a programme and also to deal with a good share of frustrations, opposition and misunderstandings.
It was my privilege to be stationed here at Hlabisa at that time and to be able to help them get going by introducing them to the area and making available to them the humble church buildings we had in those days. Where there were no buildings then clinics were conducted in people’s homes. One should pay tribute to the great generosity of the people of the Hlabisa area who accepted them and their message so unconditionally.
There were many frustrations: learning a new language was quite a challenge, especially for Dity, who would often exclaim: “I feel so stupid.” But she battled on. But that was much less frustrating than the enormity of the task they had undertaken: dealing with sickness, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance about what the causes sickness. Their resources were so few initially: one second hand Land Rover and some basic medications. One day Dity cried tears of frustration and almost of despair, in the face of the enormity of their task and the inadequacy of their puny efforts in combating sickness and underdevelopment. She even questioned the quality of their lifestyle vis-à-vis that of the local people. In trying to console and support here I answered: “You may not be able to conquer the world, but if you can help improve the lot of two or three families, it would all be worthwhile.” She seemed to accept that and slowly, slowly, the programme took shape. With increased funding they were able to take on and train assistants, acquire two cars, and work separately as two teams. They managed to build a few small clinics and spread a network of care throughout the area. They were very fortunate in having the strong support of the late Bishop Michael O’Shea and the staff of the Hlabisa hospital.
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
You might well ask: what was the source of this commitment to service to the “poorest of the poor?” It seems to me it came from three sources: compassion, a sense of community, and charity.
Compassion: As a member of the Servite Secular Institute, I am sure Dity in moments of great need prayed to “the most compassionate Virgin Mary (famous Memorare prayer). In our work, the image of our Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross is one of “abiding inspiration.” Our Constitutions speak of: (epilogue):
Dity could not bear to see a person suffering and hungry and just pass by. She had to do something. As a young girl she had experienced the deprivations of the depression in Europe and later the bombings, displacement and hunger caused by war. She understood human suffering.
Community: John’s Gospel assures us that it is the Father’s will that nobody be lost. He will also say, at the Last Supper: “Where I am you also will be.” The ideal of community was very dear to Dity as a member of the Servite Family. It was further enhanced by the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Plan: community serving humanity. It is very interesting, that while in her medical work she avoided like the plague anything which smacked of proselytism, yet “back home” she formed a close community with Marlene and the “girls.” In that home, prayer was a priority – daily prayer at home and Mass on Sundays. She also instructed a number of adult people and brought them into the Church.
Charity: In our second reading Paul posits the challenging question: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” I believe that it was her deep faith and love of God that kept her going. Dity was a complex person (as are many of us) and it is not always true that “what you see is what you have.” Whilst outwardly, she came across as being strong and determined, yet in private she endured moments of great self doubt. Whereas, outwardly she appeared strong willed and even at times, willful, inwardly she was often uncertain and confused. At moments like that she would say: “You know I am not very intelligent but I just don’t understand this thing.” It was her ardent prayer and deep spirituality which stood her in good stead in moments of darkness and turmoil. Her strong will eventually surrendered to God’ will. As Bishop O’Shea used to say: “You always know that in the end, Dity will do the right thing.” As Pope John XXIII of happy memory used to say: “Voluntas Dei – pax mea” – “the will of God is my peace.”
She read extensively in the spiritual field (many books she passed on to me) and was ever faithful to her annual retreats. She drew great strength from the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
Paul mentions a number of things which just might make us feel separated from the love of Christ: “anguish, distress, persecutions, sufferings” These represent the crosses of life. We sometimes speak quite glibly of “bearing our cross”. We can sing the chorus: “Thabatha unqamlezo ungilandela – take up your cross and follow me.” Dity had more than her share of crosses: respiratory problems, a bad back, various aches and pains, until finally she was felled by cancer. It is true to say that you can only really stand by other people’s crosses if you have learned to bear your own.
Our first reading reminds us that while the “just are in the hand of God and are at peace” the journey there can be fraught with toil and difficulty. “As gold in the furnace he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.”
I’m sure most of you will remember Peter’s question: “Lord, we who have left all and followed you, what will we get?” I’m sure, at one time or another we all ask that question: “What will we get out of it? What’s in it for us?
How Dity would has answered that question? I am sure, that in the autumn of her life, as she was forced into semi-retirement, she could look back on a life lived to the full. She would never be one to speak of her accomplishments, but I think her works of charity speak for themselves.
But the larger question looms – especially in this day and age: How could a young woman, forsake marriage and family and exciting and cultural cities like Vienna and London and “waste” her life in a village called Hlabisa? I believe that she accepted Jesus’s answer to Peter: “You will receive a hundredfold in this life, and eternal happiness in heaven.” Did she receive the hundredfold? You answer that question – because all of you who are here, who knew and loved her, are the hundred fold. You were her community, her family and gave meaning to her long and eventful life.
In the end I am sure that Sr. Dity would make her own the words the dieing St. Monica addressed to her son Augustine:“It does not matter where you bury my body. Do not let that worry you! All I ask, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
MAY SHE REST IN PEACE.