ALL IN THE FAMILY - From left, Mary Regina McKee, 91, laughs with her sister, Helen Durban, 85, as they visit with each other at St. Agnes Home in Kirkwood. Durban joined her sister about a year and a half ago at the residential care facility, where she carries out a ministry of visiting the dying.
At 85, St. Agnes Home resident Helen Durban faces death with equanimity and helps others to do so, too.
Durban moved into the Carmelite home for the aged in Kirkwood some 17 months ago. The residential care facility serves 120 residents, most of whom are in its independent-living program like Durban.
Since her arrival, she has made it her ministry to be with the dying in the home. The pint-size woman with the big smile sits by bedsides with rosary in hand, offering up Hail Marys and other words of comfort.
"When you see somebody in need, you can't resist helping, you know," said the octogenarian.
Even strangers experience her presence. No one, she said, should die alone.
Her simple, but profound act of love helps those at St. Agnes at their greatest time of need, said Sister Mary Joseph Heisler, DCJ, provincial superior.
Durban's gift to others also "is a remarkable witness of her acceptance of the reality of death," Sister Mary Joseph said.
"She herself will be facing it one day, and yet rather than running away from it, she is right there at that moment."
Her presence strengthens the faith of everyone at St. Agnes, including the sisters and staff. All "see heir incredible acceptance of the others in the home who are dying," Sister Mary Joseph said.
Her efforts serve as a double blessing for the sisters, who also attend the dying.
"We like to be there; I mean, that's what we do," Sister Mary Joseph said.
"But it is a real blessing to know that when a sister has to go to attend to other duties or has other things and can't be there to know that we count on her coming."
Durban's ministry, she said, makes visible to all the "good, old hearty Catholic tradition" of the corporal work of mercy of visiting the sick and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the living and dead.
Durban's mother died when she was 13 and her husband Charles, at age 52. Neither death, she said, left her bitter. She just accepted them as God's will.
She has learned, she said, that "you can become a better person through loss."
Throughout her years Durban has maintained an active prayer life and enjoys what she described as a close relationship with the Virgin Mary.
"All my life," she said, "I've had a devotion to the Blessed Mother. She's been my best friend."
Durban raised five sons and a daughter and was an active member of St. James the Greater Parish in the Dogtown neighborhood of South St. Louis for more than 50 years.
"I didn't have time to get depressed," she joked.
Among her parish activities, she served as a eucharistic minister and lector, was a member of the Legion of Mary and parish sodality, attended daily Mass and assisted at funerals.
For some 20 years Durban also served as a eucharistic minister at then-Deaconess Hospital, prayed the rosary with residents of a neighborhood nursing home and visited shut-ins.
These activities may have helped prepare her for her current ministry, but it is prayer that keeps her going, she said.
Durban thanks God every day she is living at St. Agnes because of its faith life, which includes daily Mass and rosary, Perpetual Help devotions, adoration, and a chapel open all hours.
"You need a prayer life to have a ministry," Durban said. "Prayer is the only thing that can help you through everything. The more you pray the closer you get to God."
One way she comforts the dying is by holding their hand and praying the rosary. "I keep saying the Hail Mary and just hold their hand. I get up close to their ear" because she had been told hearing is one of the last senses to leave the body.
The apostolate, or ministry, of visiting the dying is a "very powerful" gift that takes place "in a grace-filled moment," said Father Joseph A. Weber, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Lemay.
His mother, Mary Leona Weber, who died this past Dec. 28 at St. Agnes Home, experienced the blessing of being visited by Durban and many others as she was dying, he said.
"I think it's a very holy time, a very special time to be with a person when they are ready to go home and meet the Lord. It's a tremendous gift to try to be with them at times like that."
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