Sister Mary 0’Sullivan: Gentle Sound

by Monika Jion Winkelmann


In these three months of November 2022-2023, Sister Mary, the third person so dear to me, has died. Those who met her, usually in the large foyer of the “Center for Dialogue and Prayer,” in Auschwitz, where the large, international Zenpeacemaker groups were housed, relaxed imperceptibly and smiled. Sister Mary was from Ireland, and she was always present when we returned exhausted and inspired at the same time from a day of practice in Birkenau around 5 p.m. or later and joined the line at the counter to buy coffee or tea. I see her really quite vividly in front of me, the slim, small woman in pants and a perhaps rose-colored sweater, the strong, gray hair briskly combed back, and smiling, approaching me – or others – unselfconsciously. In an instant, you were familiar with her; she just knew how you felt, after a day like that. On my very first day, a Tuesday, she stood ready to receive me, as it were. As a German, I felt seen and “picked up,” even if the word seems a bit old-fashioned. Sister Mary had this rare gift, which I already described in Rabbi Singer, to be sisterly and motherly at the same time: Simply and straightforwardly, she took one by the arm and so led me to one of the small seating areas, to the left of the stairs. What a wonderful pastor! With the number and size of the groups of visitors, she must have had a lot of other tasks to do – I never noticed it. Because she was present, she easily switched back and forth between serious and cheerful. And she took herself so little seriously that she always seemed to be in the background. Sister Mary is a great role model for me, and yet I also know that she liked me and would encourage me to simply remain, to be myself.


In 2010, the Bearing Witness Retreat with Bernie Glassman Roshi was exceptionally held in the summer, and it was my first. The reason for this was to offer and hold a second retreat for young people in November. It was my first week-long retreat „ in the field“, and I was suitably agitated. The shared room with seven or eight companions turned out to be a big positive surprise. The room was spacious enough for all of us, with high windows overlooking the meadow, and we got along well, had a lot of fun, and had serious conversations. I remember a go-round of NVC (Nonviolent Communication), which I had suggested as a role-play, and that we always rested or slept before dinner. We were so exhausted, also from the blazing sun, and the high temperature in June.


Sister Mary was the soul of the house, at Father Manfred’s side, flanked by friendly staff behind the reception desk, the coffee bar, and the many who worked in the kitchen and housekeeping. Once I asked for a one-on-one meeting – or did she offer it to me? – and burdens fell off me. What does it mean to be accepted and understood! Apparently not much, but I have always taken a slice for my own encounters, consultations, and accompaniments. I am just now becoming aware of the richness of spiritual and human competence I have been allowed to experience in all these years, and I feel richly endowed. Since then, I have been constantly evolving in religious terms, letting the path emerge as I felt it under my feet. Sometimes I have imagined helping out, “serving”, and practicing in this Auschwitz Center for a longer period of time. Who knows, maybe I will still do that. I would then tune in deeply to Sister Mary and let her guide me.


We always both bowed to each other, which came easily to her; she was, after all, along with dear Father Manfred – to whom I also spoke 1:1, at least once – part of the Zenpeacemakers’ leadership committee, which did not only consist of Buddhist practitioners and spirit-holders.


With a special deep bow, beloved Sister Mary, I bid you farewell and pray for you daily, until the 49th day. You would surely have appreciated it, and pensively I smile at you under a wild Irish sky.


Sister Mary O’Sullivan RSM (Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy) [5/24/1947 – 01/21/2023] leaves, I speak only for myself – a gentle sound.

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Sister Mary 0’Sullivan: Gentle Sound

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