Remembrance of the Life of Sister Elizabeth ‘Betty’ (formerly Sister Marian Francis) McWilliams SL
Elizabeth Jane McWilliams was born in Rockford, Ill., the only child of Frances Marguerite “Betty” McWilliams and Francis Lloyd “Mac” McWilliams. These two Midwesterners amply gifted their daughter with Midwestern frankness and the Catholic faith. In a lengthy interview during Loretto’s 2012 Jubilee, Betty began with her growing up and how she got to Loretto:
“My parents … loved me unconditionally, taught me my prayers, [took me] to church and [sent me] to the Sisters of Loretto at … St. Peter’s in Rockford, and that’s how I got to know our congregation. I went from first grade through eighth grade there. When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, … I can remember the bishop saying, ‘What will you be doing for the Church? What does it mean to be a Catholic? What kind of service will you be giving?’ And I can remember one Aug. 15 [when I] was in grade school. I was in church … and it was as clear as anything … that God wanted me to be a Sister. I was not sure which order. But I knew it was a vocation — a calling, whatever that is. [It was] in my head and very strong.
“In the ‘50s, I went to Bishop Muldoon High School; the Adrian Dominican Sisters taught there. And so I began thinking, ‘Do I like the Sisters of Loretto better? Or do I like the Adrian Dominicans?’ During high school, I was in the glee club, and at times the glee club would go to visit the Poor Clare Sisters in Rockford. I knew I didn’t want to be a cloistered Sister. I needed to be active and out; teaching at that time was important to me. I also was in a service club, and we would visit and do some projects with a group of [social service] Sisters; and, I also read quite a bit about the Maryknoll Missionaries that went to foreign countries. I knew that I was called to neither one of those. So, then I went back to the teaching Sisters — Adrian Dominicans or Sisters of Loretto? … In any of my interactions with Sisters of Loretto, I always felt that they were so friendly, and in my head I thought, ‘If I’m going to live with a group of women all my life, I want them to be happy and friendly.’
“I entered the Sisters of Loretto Sept. 8, 1953.”
Received into the congregation as Sister Marian Francis, she made first vows May 24, 1956, and went on to the St. Louis House of Studies, where she completed a bachelor’s in education. Later she would earn a master’s in counseling and guidance at Notre Dame.
With her teaching certificate fresh in her hand, in 1958 Betty began a total of 64 years of service that included 20 years as a classroom teacher and school counselor, 18 years as an innovator in hospice home health and 12 years serving the Loretto Community directly on the health care staff and as coordinator of the Denver Loretto Center. “Retiring” in 2007, Betty contributed her considerable personal and administrative skills for another 14 years as a volunteer — on Loretto planning committees, networks and the CPC; giving English language support for her neighbors; doing clerical work for the development office and finally, when she retired to Loretto Motherhouse in 2017, three years as president of the Resident Council of the Motherhouse Infirmary.
Such a catalogue of positions and responsibilities doesn’t say nearly enough about the way Betty went about her work. Betty described herself as patient and level-headed, bringing empathy, flexibility and a quiet, calm manner to her work. She especially preferred working collaboratively and in her hospice positions in Highland Park, Ill., and in Long View, Wash., Betty was trusted, honored and awarded for her skill in team development, bringing together both professional medical personnel and volunteer health providers through her collaborative management style. Betty was an innovator in many ways, again, particularly, in her work at Highland Park Hospital, whose hospice program was one of the very first in the country. Betty created some of the earliest standards of care for home hospice, and helped form one of the first medical ethics committees in the country. When she was ready to leave Highland Park, Betty was quickly tapped by a similar hospice program in Long View, to lead their volunteer and bereavement programs.
In the 2012 interview, Betty was asked by the interviewer whether she thought of herself as a Sister of Loretto while doing all these things, especially in the years when she had no Loretto companions. Betty replied, “Yes, in my heart I knew I was a Loretto Sister, and this was my ministry. Every Christmas I would go to Denver to be with Community, and in the summer I would also be with Loretto Sisters. And then twice a year, I’d go to my Community Group. Our system of communication is such that I never felt that I was away from my Loretto Community, but I also now had a work community. I had a parish community. I felt I belonged to all of them as I did Loretto’s work of alleviating suffering where we find it.”
Betty gave another example of being Loretto at the time: “[At the beginning], I volunteered at Highland Park Hospital in this new hospice movement [while I] was working for the parish. Then, the hospice of Highland Park Hospital wanted to hire me as the coordinator of the program. The way I looked upon my vow of obedience at that point, [it meant] consulting others and discerning.” So Betty consulted with her parish team, “because by that time they knew me. I also consulted with my Community Group [in St Louis]. … And both of those groups said, ‘Go ahead and work for Highland Park Hospital.’ “
Immensely important to Betty throughout her years of service was to be confident that her skills and contributions were up to the needs. She told the interviewer that her parents had given her a good foundation of self-confidence and self-assurance, but equally important was the confidence she gained through her education and in her work positions. She described her master’s program at Notre Dame as a highlight: “Those summers at Notre Dame and [the affirmation I received from my professors there], gave me a great deal of self-confidence. I felt, ‘I can make it in the world.’” Similarly, Betty said, “It was an excellent move for me, [into hospice care] because I got excellent reviews, had a very positive experience; again, it gave me more self-confidence I could make it in the world. I was amazed at the skills that I learned in their management group.”
Betty continued, “I feel it has [been a productive and rewarding life], and I owe it all to Loretto. I travelled to different places I never thought I would ever see. And I have felt very much that the Holy Spirit has guided me into works I had never thought of, particularly the health care and hospice. I’ve always felt the Holy Spirit kind of guides or makes something come along.”
Asked in her 2012 interview what she would like to leave for her Loretto Sisters, Betty replied, “As we are going through a discerning process … and looking into the future … I do think that a religious presence is needed. I think people are looking for “spirituality.” … If we can help provide quiet places … I think our presence, our lives will have meaning in the world. I think that God will continue to give vocations. … We may not be the numbers that we were, but that’s OK. We started out with three.”