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Sister Denise remembered for wit, talent for finding beauty

Sister Denise remembered for wit, talent for finding beauty - (03-12-2014)

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Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Mary Denise McMahon, 90, passed away on Dec. 1, 2014, at her monastery in Clyde, Missouri.

She was born Margaret Mary (Peggy) McMahon on March 26, 1924, in Pittsburgh to Thomas Joseph and Mary Boyle McMahon. Her father was born in Liverpool, England, and her mother came from Glasgow, Scotland. She had three older brothers, James Thomas, Kenneth and Edward, and a younger sister, Patricia.  

When she was a child, the family lived near Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and she attended the parochial school at St. Vincent’s Archabbey. The family later moved to Ohio where she graduated from East High School in Youngstown in 1937. She also studied business courses at night for three years.

For several years Peggy worked at a drugstore in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania, where the family had moved when her mother become ill with cancer. Her mother died when Peggy was just 19 years old.

In 1956 she briefly entered the Carmel in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, but returned home to help with family. She worked as a bank teller for 3 1/2 years, but the desire for religious life was still persistent. She again applied to the same Carmel and was admitted in August 1960. This time she remained only two weeks because she felt her father was in need of her. He died suddenly of a heart attack in October of that year.

After this Peggy moved to Tucson, Arizona, where her brother, Jim, was living with his family. It was there that she heard about the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Peggy was accepted as an aspirant at the Benedictine Sisters’ Tucson monastery on Dec. 1, 1961. Mother Mary Tharsilla, the Tucson prioress at the time, wrote to the postulant director in Clyde, “Margaret Mary handles things with a simplicity and maturity that is charming; I am sure you will all be pleased with her.”

Margaret Mary entered the postulancy at Clyde on Feb. 15, 1962. She was invested as a novice on Sept. 15, 1962, and professed first vows on Sept. 12, 1964. She was given the profession name of Sister Mary Denise, and her patron was St. Denis. 

She moved to the Benedictine Sisters’ St. Louis community in April 1966 as part of her novitiate.  One year later she transferred to Mundelein, Illinois, then back to St. Louis in June 1968. It was there she made her final monastic profession on Sept. 25, 1969. She lived in St. Louis until the monastery’s closure in 2001 then moved to the community in Clyde.   

To help settle into her new life in the countryside of northwest Missouri, she entertained the sisters about what she had heard that morning from the “hog report” on the local radio station. Because she was a natural story teller with a twinkle in her Irish eyes, sisters were known to stay at table long after the closing meal prayer while she finished a tale. A favorite story of hers was about the time she unexpectedly walked in on a robbery-in-progress at an ice cream store in St. Louis. She would drolly say, “I kindly held the door open for him (the thief) when he ran out.”

Sister Denise’s great gift to the congregation was her artistic talents of painting, calligraphy, flower arranging and handling monastery decor. It was more than just painting or arranging flowers, it was about creating beauty. Many birthday cards, profession invitations, jubilee programs and “Spirit&Life” magazine issues had Sister Denise’s art gracing their covers. She won an Honorable Mention award from the Catholic Press Association for a “Spirit&Life” cover she designed in 1976. In the 1970s she designed the new silver emblem for the congregation featuring the Benedictine cross with a chalice and two loaves of bread. 

Sister Denise could look at ordinary objects and envision a lovely table decoration or ornaments for a Christmas tree. It was not unusual for her to spy an object in a dusty attic or barn and use it as the perfect touch in some display. Comparisons to Martha Stewart were not uncommon. Sister Denise was still arranging flowers for the Clyde community two days before her death when she finished making her final Advent wreath.

Sister Denise celebrated her 90th birthday in March and celebrated her Golden Jubilee in September. She was preceded in death by her parents and three brothers. She is survived by her sister, Patricia Gumbert, many nieces and nephews and her monastic family.

A wake will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, at the monastery. The Mass of Christian Burial is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, in the Adoration Chapel of the Benedictine Sisters in Clyde. Sister Denise will be interred at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Clyde.

To view a tribute to Sister Denise, please click here.

Memorials in honor of Sister Denise can be made by visiting www.BenedictineSisters.org and clicking on “Donate” or mailed to the Benedictine Sisters at 31970 State Highway P, Clyde, Missouri, 64432.