Commentator Madeleine Kunin has been thinking about public service, and
how it came to define the life and legacy of Sister Elizabeth Candon.
When young Hamlet vented his anger against Ophelia, he shouted, "Get
thee to a nunnery!" That was what had happened to young women when they
were spurned by lovers – their only recourse was to be condemned to a
Not so for Sister Elizabeth Candon. For 74
years, she happily served as a Sister of Mercy, living a life that was
far from cloistered.
She had entered into the convent during one
period, when Sisters still had male Saint’s names, and emerged in
another – when quite suddenly, sisters shed both their habits of
clothing and their habits of living. Few made the transition into the
modern world more dramatically than Sister Elizabeth when she became a
I first met her when I was in my thirties, had
recently received my Masters’ degree in English literature from the
University of Vermont, and given birth to my fourth child. I was ready
to step back into the world myself – tentatively.
Elizabeth hired me to be a part – time instructor at Trinity College – I
was thrilled, not knowing I would be up half the night correcting 150
I remember the tragic day of Kent State May 4,
1970, when the National Guard fired on unarmed anti-Vietnam student
protesters – and four were killed, I went to her office to ask that we
cancel classes and have a teach-in. Without a moment’s hesitation she
How did this devout woman,who began her education in a
Vermont one-room school house and received a PhD in her favorite
subjects – Shakespeare and Chaucer – become such a beloved figure?
one thing, she gave herself the freedom to say what she believed to be
true, whether it pleased the Catholic Bishop or not. For another, she
did not wait for her journey to heaven to translate the word of God into
action here on earth. When she was appointed Secretary of the Agency of
Human Services by former Republican governor Richard Snelling, she
seized the opportunity to serve the neediest of Vermont’s citizens – not
by prayer alone.
She was not your usual rebel – pushing the
envelope against established institutions. She might not have marched
with the 99 percent Occupy Wall Street crowd, but in her heart, she was
100 percent with them.
Her words were never harsh, her voice
never loud, her presence not large. But the aura that glowed around her
was huge and powerful. She delighted others with her sparkling Irish
humor, even as she lay on her death bed, which did not seem like a death
bed at all. She had her visitors laughing with her at her string of
hilarious observations; the oxygen tube that helped her breathe could
not restrain her.
More than anyone I had ever known, Sister
Elizabeth was ready for death. She knew she had lived a full and happy
life; and in the process, she enabled countless others to live a better