Diana Breeze, now a Madonna House staff member, was only nine years old when Beth Holmes was assigned to La Casa de Nuestra Senora in Diana’s home town of Winslow, Arizona.
“I thought she was so beautiful! And when I heard her sing, I thought she was extraordinary. I wanted to be just like her, but I was too shy to talk to her. Then she got transferred when I was twelve, and I wrote to her a long letter, as you only can when you are twelve, and after that I wrote to her every month….”
Patricia Lawton, in her moving eulogy at the wake service, remembered Beth “as a woman of joy and deep faith. She had a wonderful sense of humor, a great voice and played guitar. She delighted in dogs, penguins, babies, and watching competitive figure skating. “She didn’t have a pious bone in her body; however, she carried many people in prayer. Lots of interests captured her imagination and delighted her. Beth also loved music—everything from Gregorian chant to the Rolling Stones and most types of music in between.”
Elizabeth Ann Holmes was born in 1946 in St. Louis, Missouri, the third of three children. She attended Catholic schools and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Marquette University in Wisconsin. After briefly visiting Madonna House in 1970, she returned the following year. On August 15, 1971, she made her first promises, along with Echo Lewis and Patti Birdsong.
In her fifty-two years of apostolic life, Beth served in ten different missions, from the west and north of Canada to the American Atlantic seaboard and multiple assignments in Russia. She said yes to whatever was asked of her. One of her local directors told us, “When I needed her, any time, she never, ever said no.” Regardless of what she was struggling with, she was there to serve. Her faith and her love for her vocation were the two pillars that grounded her life.
Russia, its people, language, and culture had a special place in Beth’s heart. She spent a total of about three and a half years at our houses in Magadan and Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. She loved being called Liza, the diminutive for Elizabeth. She was a voracious reader, especially of culture and history, and in the Madonna House library it’s hard to find a book about Russia that she hadn’t signed out.
During her ten years in Washington D.C., her last MH assignment, she met weekly for food, fellowship, and discussion with members of a book club. Her wide grasp of facts and information was such that her friends urged her to sign up for what they figured would be a sure win on the TV show Jeopardy!
Beth made lasting relationships, including with her college friends and those she met in the houses where she served. The friendships she formed in Russia endured until her death.
At MH Washington, on Capitol Hill, she loved weeding in the front garden, where she could visit with whoever passed by. At the coffee hour on Sundays, after their parish Mass, she would seek out the seniors, always ready with a smile and a word of cheer. During Madonna House’s “Moms’ Mornings,” she was the Pied Piper, playing with and caring for the children.
But Beth had no concept of herself as the beautiful, loving woman others saw. All her life she struggled with a painful lack of self-worth. During the Memory Night after Beth’s funeral, Cynthia Donnelly remarked, “As I listen to these wonderful stories about her, I can imagine Beth sitting next to me, saying, ‘Who are they talking about?’”
Beth’s mother and older sister Meg had both died of breast cancer during Beth’s early years at Madonna House. These were hard losses for her, and in May 2006, Beth herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor ordered further tests and found ovarian cancer as well. Ovarian cancer is usually discovered in the late stages, when treatment is unlikely to help. Beth’s was found at an early stage, only because the breast cancer prompted the doctor to do more tests. She was heard saying that the best thing that happened to her was getting breast cancer!
Over the next two years she remained in Combermere while undergoing treatments. Madonna House members sent notes, made phone calls and visits, and offered prayers. Beth was completely astounded by this outpouring of love and affection. It was a special grace for her to realize how much she was loved and valued.
Beginning in 2009, Beth had winter assignments in Roanoke and in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. In 2014 she was assigned to Washington, D.C. where her struggle with cancer continued. At her side during the last few years, pouring herself out for Beth and serving her needs, was Echo Lewis, her MH classmate and friend for fifty years.
In August of 2022, Beth wrote a letter to our Madonna House family about her condition. She had asked her doctors, “When I had chemo before, in 2006 I got well, so to speak, in that the cancer went into remission. That’s not going to happen this time, is it?” “No,” they told her. She also wrote that she now had chronic leukemia and serious kidney problems due to earlier chemo treatments. “I am heading for my meeting with the Lord,” she wrote. “I ask for your prayers, for courage and for wisdom to know how to move when.”
As her fatigue increased, she still continued to do everything she could, including bookkeeping, office work, laundry, sacristy, and listening to those who came to see her. Except for her Madonna House family and close friends of MH Washington, people didn’t even know she was struggling with cancer. She was welcoming, radiant, totally present to the person before her.
Few people witnessed Beth’s life of prayer, but everyone who met or talked with her experienced its fruits. Her life with the Lord strengthened Beth and sustained her throughout her illness.
The journey with cancer brought forth her greatness, leading her ever further along her spiritual path. That, in turn, deepened her gifts of mercy and compassion.
Our traditional Memory Night for a member who has died is a precious time of remembering our deceased brother or sister—often with humor, always with love. The cumulative effect of the anecdotes and reminiscences builds a picture of God’s unique work in every person’s life. It was Elizabeth Bassarear, Director General of women staff, who put into words the legacy Beth has left for us:
Beth really struggled with a lack of self-worth, with negativity, and some relationships. We all struggle with these things, and we all make choices to serve. I think of the many, many choices Beth made over the years—to listen, to play with babies, to do the dishes on her day off simply ‘because I live here.’
I don’t know if she ever got really healed of what she called her emotional challenges. Many of us don’t. But we’ve heard so deeply tonight about the joy and the radiance that other people saw in her. It gives us courage to make these choices, and [when we do], the other stuff, the wounding, loses its grip, and who we really are most deeply comes forth.
“We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures,” said Pope St. John Paul II at the Toronto World Youth Day. “We are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
“Who are they talking about?” It’s you, Beth, beloved of God, beloved sister in the Madonna House vocation. Thank you for your courage, your faith, your perseverance, and your faithfulness.