Sister Mary Elaine Breen, SSMN, nurse and missionary, dies at 83

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

March 11, 2021

Sister Mary Elaine Breen
Sister Mary Elaine Breen dressed for her volunteer shift at Cook Children's Hospital (2015 NTC file photo/Joan Kurkowski-Gillen) 

Many of the young women who joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur spent their lives in a Catholic school classroom teaching young children. Sister Mary Elaine Breen served the Church in a different way.

“I’ve always loved to nurse and care for people,” the eldest daughter of six children told the North Texas Catholic in a 2014 interview.

After completing her novitiate, the 18-year-old was expected to follow the same career path as her fellow religious sisters, “but I asked to go into nursing and it happened,” said the 1960 graduate of St. Joseph’s School of Nursing.

Sr. Mary Elaine, a longtime registered nurse, midwife, and caregiver to others, died March 8 in a local nursing home. She was 83.

Friends and family are invited to share memories and stories of Sr. Mary Elaine during a visitation and vigil service set for 6 p.m. Friday, March 19 at Thompson’s Harveson and Cole funeral home, 4350 River Oaks Blvd. Bishop Michael Olson will lead the Rosary beginning at 7 p.m.

Father John Shanahan, TOR, will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady of Victory Center on Saturday, March 20. COVID restrictions limit Mass attendance to the SSMN congregation, but friends and family may attend the 1:30 p.m. interment service at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Masks are required.

Born in Indiana to Robert and Helen Marie Breen, Margaret Anne Breen attended St. Alice (now Holy Family) School in Fort Worth where the impressionable student met Sister Mary Irma Endres, SSMN, and learned about the religious order’s missionary work in Africa. These stories would have a lasting impact on her life.

After graduating from Our Lady of Victory Academy in 1954, Margaret Anne joined four other girls from her class who entered the SSMN novitiate that year. She took the name, Sister Mary Elaine — a variation of the name Helen Marie — to honor her mother.

Armed with a degree in nursing, the young sister realized a dream when she became the first Texan sent from the western province to the order’s missions in the Congo and Mubuga, Rwanda.

Her medical knowledge was a useful resource in the Congo where Sr. Mary Elaine worked as a midwife delivering babies and tending to the needs of orphans. The missionary later took a course in tropical medicine and was assigned to the order’s dispensary and hospital in Rwanda.

“I’m told there is more than one Mary Elaine running around in Africa as a result of her missionary work there,” said Judy Keane, one of the deceased’s surviving siblings. “My sister always found her own path. She did what she needed to do in this world. She loved life and loved her family.”

Returning to Fort Worth in 1968, Sr. Mary Elaine served unwed mothers and their children at Catholic Charities Fort Worth for several years before becoming director of the OLV infirmary, then located on the fourth floor of the old OLV Academy building. When the religious order decided to construct the OLV Center on adjacent property, Sr. Mary Elaine worked alongside architects and contractors to ensure the new building was safe and accommodating for infirmed and elderly members of the congregation.

Once the sisters moved into the OLV center in 1987, the skilled caregiver served the religious order as coordinator, nursing director, and development person. In her later years, Sr. Mary Elaine remained an active volunteer at Cook Children’s Medical Center. For several hours each week, the retired nurse, alongside the late Sister Francesca Walterscheid, rocked and fed premature newborns in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, often serving as a support to worried parents.

“Being a Baby Buddy is something I enjoy very much,” she said.

For the past few years, Sr. Mary Elaine resided at Stonegate Nursing Home where she became a favorite of fellow patients and staff.

“She was just really wonderful and bubbly,” said Sister Rosemary Stanton, recalling how the medically trained sister would monitor her health during trips home from the Brazilian missions. “Her smile just took over her face. She was very caring and loving. Everybody loved her.”

Sr. Mary Elaine’s outgoing personality was evident during birthday celebrations when she served as emcee at the OLV Center.

“We couldn’t get the microphone away from her,” she added. “We always kidded her about that.”

Revealing moments from the last few days of her patient’s life, a hospice nurse told the Breen family it was an honor to care for their sister. Treating seriously ill patients is stressful, she admitted, so the caretaker always tried to make Sr. Mary Elaine her last appointment of the day.

“I knew her smile and her spirit would lift me up,” the nurse explained. “No matter how she was feeling, that’s what Sister did for me.”

Surviving the deceased are siblings Judy Keane, Michael Breen, and Robert Breen, nieces and nephews, and members of the SSMN congregation. Memorials can be made to the Sister of St. Mary of Namur, 909 W. Shaw St., Fort Worth, TX 76110.

Sister Mary Elaine Breen

Many of the young women who joined the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur spent their lives in a Catholic school classroom teaching young children. 

Published (until 3/11/2039)
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