Sister Evelyn Mattern, who spent her life giving strength to the powerless in North Carolina and fighting for peace, women’s rights, migrant farmworkers and children’s health, passed away Sunday in Philadelphia.

She worked 27 years for the Catholic diocese in Raleigh and then for the Council of Churches, teaching, organizing, acting as a gentle burr in the side of the rich and powerful and a comfort and confidante to the powerless. She left Raleigh this fall to go home to Pennsylvania after the cancer in her body was declared incurable and she decided against further treatments.

A friend says she spent her final few weeks within sight of the high school she attended. “She was in familiar territory, and we’re very grateful for that.” Her brother was at her side.

Mattern was an Indy Citizen Award winner in 1991, and we most recently wrote about her farewell celebration, “A Lifetime Putting Her Faith to Work,” in the Oct. 8 edition ( angles.html).

Mattern had a Ph.D. in English and was an accomplished writer and poet. In 1999, she published this poem about Therese of Lisieux, who lived in Normandy at the end of the 19th century. Therese’s mother died when she was 4, and she entered a convent at 15. Mattern wrote that as a young girl, Therese prayed for an unrepentant murderer and saw him undertake an act of contrition just before his execution; she felt it was an answer to her prayer.

Therese died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, glad, Mattern said, that she did not live past the age when men were ordained into the priesthood since she wanted to be a priest but never could. She was canonized in 1925 and is called the Saint of the Little Flower.

Therese of Lisieux: A villanelle

Was I waking up to the godhead in me
when my mother said I sang in her womb?
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

Mothered by five in leaf-laced Normandy,
I learned from their love to make everywhere home
and greet everyone through the godhead in me.

With no compass besides eternity,
I fly to the heart of the world, not a tomb.
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

In the deepest enclosure I shall be free
for even in darkness some flowers bloom
each springtime that wakes the godhead in me.

Jesus sleeps in my boat; hush, let him be.
Given over to him, I have become
the torrent that pulls in its path to the sea.

Children please parents most dearly in sleep,
filling both thimble and cut with love’s sum.
Forever I wake to the godhead in me.
The torrent pulls all in its path to the sea.

— from Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics, by Evelyn Mattern and Helen David Brancato, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1999.