By Prioress Sr. Phyllis McMurray, OSB
“Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
The story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus is not only relevant to this Easter season but also it is so appropriate to the life of Sister Veronica. Sister Veronica loved the scriptures and when she spoke of the scriptures, her heart burned with a passion that was contagious.
Margaret Ruth Shunick was born in Monmouth, IL on February 20, 1923, to Richard and Sadie Cavanaugh Shunick. She was one of six children who were raised mainly by her mother as her father died at the age of 43. At that time, the children ranged from 4 to 16 years of age. Gertrude (Sister Bernadette) was the oldest, followed by Vera, Rosemary, Margaret Ruth (Sister Veronica), Richard, and Thomas.
Margaret Ruth was baptized at Immaculate Conception Church in Monmouth, IL, where she attended the parish elementary school. She graduated from Monmouth High School in June of 1941 and entered St. Mary’s Convent in September of the same year. She received the name Sister Veronica at her reception as a novice in 1942, professed first vows in 1943 and made final vows in 1946.
Sister Veronica received a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Saint Ambrose College in 1957 and a Master’s degree in Art in 1964 from the University of Notre Dame. Among other summer courses, Sister Veronica participated in a summer session at the Art Institute in Chicago and a Renaissance Seminar in Humanities and the Arts in Italy.
Sister Veronica served 18 years as a teacher and/or administrator at St. Mary’s Academy, Nauvoo; St. Mary’s School, Moline; St. Roch’s School, LaSalle; St. John’s, Bradford; and Holy Family and St. Boniface Schools, Peoria. She served as Community Supervisor of Schools for the Sisters of St. Benedict for six years and as Associate Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Peoria for one year. In 1969, she became head of the Art Department at St. Mary’s Academy in Nauvoo where she served until 1995. Known for her beautiful woodcuts, pottery, and a variety of works of art, Sister Veronica continued using her creative talent in her retirement sharing her ability with all of us in preparing the art and environment for the Monastery Chapel.
“Happy the one who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding! For her profit is better than profit in silver, and better than gold is her revenue; she is more precious than corals, and none of your choice possessions can compare with her.” (Proverbs 3:13-15)
Sister Veronica was a woman of prayer and a woman of wisdom. She loved the wisdom literature in the scriptures. In her Bible, she had paper clipped together the pages which encompassed the book of Proverbs through the book of Sirach. I had the good fortune to do group lectio, a reflective reading, with Sr. Veronica and several of our Sisters. We used a concordance to find instances where “wisdom” was mentioned in scripture and then we used those verses for lectio. It was a graced experience. She lived the joy and peace that comes from an understanding of wisdom.
Sister Veronica’s sense of humor carried over into her prayer. She had an asterisk next to one verse in Sirach that read, “A fool’s chatter is like a load on a journey, but there is charm to be found upon the lips of the wise.” (Sirach 21:16)
In addition to prayer, Sister Veronica knew well her priorities. Community was a priority. In 1972, she wrote that very important to her was the authenticity of our lives as religious women. “We must be what we profess to be. We must be genuine…Our Christian life in community must show clearly that the focal point of our lives is Christ. To be genuine we must be women with a vision – a vision that impels us to love and service, a hope that thrusts us into eternity.”
Sister Veronica’s family and her Irish heritage were priorities. She loved her family very much and enjoyed family gatherings and visits. Over the years, she did a great deal of work on the genealogy of her family and has left her family a rich treasure of information.
Sister Veronica’s love of art and passing on that love to her students were priorities. Art appreciation was a requirement for all St. Mary’s Academy students so no one could evade Sister Veronica’s influence. In a written note to Sister Veronica, a student wrote, “I remember the peace and calm you displayed. You truly practiced a quietness and willingness as you served the Lord. You shared more by your actions than you may imagine. I want you to know I have never forgotten your gentle spirit. You always encouraged me to have faith in myself and my abilities.”
One student who is now an artist wrote, “Please tell Sister Veronica that she has a student who has carried her great spirit and words of wisdom with her throughout her life. I remember her each day. “
And from a student from Mexico, now an artist: “Sister Veronica was a great teacher and a great person. She taught me art in a way I had never been taught before. She helped me see that Art was and is my passion.”
Sister Veronica also spent time with our “twin” Benedictine community in the Philippines teaching the Sisters there to paint with water color. They wrote:
“Truly a woman of wisdom and grace was dear Sister Veronica. We knew first-hand her quiet generosity and serene patience in teaching us ”beyond” the art of water color. We all here are very grateful that Sr. Veronica, a real-life Benedictine, came to enter our monastic life. She will be remembered at our Holy Masses and Divine Office. Very special thanks to your Community for sharing her with us!
A description of how Sister Veronica lived her life was written inside the front cover of Sister Veronica’s bible. It was a verse from the Prophet Micah:
“You have been told…what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
How fitting that God called Sister Veronica home during the Easter Season! She believed in keeping the joy of Easter in our hearts all year long. She said, “Easter is a sign of God’s glory and gentleness. We must quiet ourselves to really appreciate the gentleness. That quiet will help gentle us, too.” Her advice to us written in our newsletter was, “Take time away from your daily affairs to just “be,” whether strolling through the neighborhood or sitting on the sofa in your living room.” (Connecting Point, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2004) Sister Veronica was a prime example of one who enjoyed drinking in the beauties of nature. She did love goodness, and walked humbly with her God.
Each of us has special memories of Sr. Veronica. A special memory that I have is a lesson I learned from Sr. Veronica during a visit to her classroom. She was teaching the students that we still have freedom even though we have limits. Sister Veronica gave each student a piece of paper that was about 8 inches wide and 20 inches long. She told the students that they had to use only charcoal to draw a picture. Then she said, “Now you can draw whatever you like!” It wasn’t just an art lesson. It was a lesson for life.