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A priest honors the nun who demonstrated 'the ministry of presence'

 Father James Martin.
James Martin.
Father James Martin.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 2000, Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin received devastating news: his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. One of the people who helped the family through it was Sister Janice Farnham, Martin’s professor of church theology from seminary.

Farnham had gotten to meet Martin’s father, and even though they didn’t know each other well, they had formed a special bond.

“She took a particular shine to my father, who always said, ‘She's a wonderful woman,’” Martin recalled.

Not long before Martin’s father died, Farnham made a surprising offer.

 Sister Janice Farnham.
James Martin / Supplied
Sister Janice Farnham.

“Janice said to me, ‘I'd like to come visit him,’” Martin said. He knew it would take her more than five hours to make the trip, and that she didn’t have much money to spare.

“She's on a Catholic sister's budget, right? They take a vow of poverty,” Martin said.

But Farnham was undeterred.

“Janice got on a train, took the train down five hours to Philadelphia, took another commuter train, found her way to the hospital, spent time with my dad, got back on the train, and went back home,” Martin said.

“And I thought it was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me.”

After the visit, Martin told Farnham how much the gesture meant to him.

“And I said, you know, ‘I can't believe you did it,’” Martin remembered. “And she said, ‘Of course. You know, why wouldn't I want to come down and see your dad?’”

Martin’s father didn’t know many priests or nuns, but he had great respect for them.

“The fact that a Catholic sister would come down and visit my dad was a big deal for him,” Martin said. “And I think it prepared him for his death. He died ... a week or two later.”

Today, more than 20 years later, Martin still thinks about Farnham’s act of generosity. And now, when he learns of a baptism, a wedding, a funeral, or of someone who is dying, he has a new rule for himself: if he’s able to go, he will go.

“I think it's a reminder that, you know, someone said 99% of life is showing up. That these gestures that we make really stick with people,” Martin said.

“Never underestimate that what we call in the Jesuits 'Ministry of Presence’ — just showing up.” 

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]