Last Year (October, 2007), my beloved mother was honored with the Sisters of Saint Joseph Spirit of Courage Award. Yesterday, someone found a reference to that on the Web and forwarded it to me. Here it is as it shows why my family (my brother Mark and I) love her so much and are so proud of her and to be her sons. Last month, she accompanied me and Father Brighenti on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Fatima. When we returned, I took her to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She spotted Newt Gingrich and got his autograph as well as former US Ambassador to the Vatican, James Nicholson. Earlier this year, she met the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi at the Vatican Embassy, when we were in town to celebrate my 20th Jubilee of Ordination. Since she was too ill to attend the Papal Masses in the Spring, His Grace was kind enough to give her a private audience a month later. Despite her youthful looks, she suffers from chronic back pain as a result of multiple disk injuries and degenerative arthritis. Nevertheless, the physical and emotional crosses she bears do not stop her from taking care of cloistered Carmelite nuns.
What is the SSJ Spirit
In 1997, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania announced the beginning of The Courage To Come Back in the Erie Diocese. The Courage To Come Back program had a two-fold purpose: to honor individuals who have shown remarkable courage in recovery from accident, injury, illness, addiction or economic adversity; and, to raise funds to support the various community service projects of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Sisters of St. Joseph adopted the Courage idea because it was a natural fit with their many ministries of education, health care, care for the elderly, social work, finding shelter for the homeless and affordable housing for mothers and children. In celebration of the tenth anniversary of Courage, in 2006 the name was changed to the SSJ Spirit of Courage Awards.
The quiet, daily acts of ordinary people who refuse to give up in the face of illness, injury or other adversity represent courage in its truest form. Yet, all too often, these people struggle alone with no fanfare and little or no recognition for their courage. They are the heart of the SSJ Spirit of Courage.
The highlight of the SSJ Spirit of Courage program is the Awards Dinner, which is held each fall. A variety of sponsorship opportunities for the dinner are available, all designed to give the appropriate recognition that is deserved for supporting the ministries and community service projects of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The tremendous success of the SSJ Spirit of Courage has allowed the Sisters of St. Joseph to continue seeking and establishing ministries that serve the community. With nearly 350 Sisters and lay Associates, the congregation continues to affirm its mission of unity of neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God by undertaking whatever ministry that might bring about unity and by continuously responding to the changing needs of the world.
In 1955 Liz Trigilio graduated from St. Vincent’s School of Nursing, and having experienced various assignments during senior rotation, was happy to begin working in the emergency room. Eventually, because of her efficiency, skill, and discipline, Liz became the ER’s head nurse. Her career, she reflects, was both exciting and rewarding.
Early Years…Happiness and Grief
Liz married in 1958 and became pregnant in 1960. At eight months, she recognized troubling signs: no movement from her baby, spotting, and finally, 48 hours of labor. Mary Jo was born with hyaline membrane disease, so her undeveloped lungs limited oxygen intake. Unfortunately, at that time, no viable treatment was available, and Mary Jo died within three days.
During the next six years, Liz and husband John welcomed two sons – John and Joseph. John Jr.
resolved to become a priest by the time he made his first communion; in middle school, he gathered family around the coffee table – arranged as altar – to offer Mass…including sermon. John was so sure of his vocation, in fact, that he entered St. Mark’s Seminary in 9th grade. Joseph was born 2 years later. Though close in age, he was entirely different from John. Joe loved the
outdoors and preferred fishing and hunting to books.
Five years later, the Trigilio family was completed with the births of Michael in 1966, and Mark, a
year later. Michael, at nine months, wasn’t meeting his physical milestones; further, Liz noticed that his calf muscles appeared enlarged. Eventually, his development lagged behind Mark’s. After some frightening visits to the ER, and blood work, a neurologist diagnosed Michael with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, a progressive and terminal illness. Still, Michael attended Blessed Sacrament, and Academy High School – confined then to a wheelchair – and Edinboro
Liz, continuing to nurse part-time, prepared tantalizing meals of homemade pasta for family and friends, welcomed guests galore, tended to Michael, and demonstrated her religious conviction. Husband John, a Sunday Catholic at the time of their marriage, grew to know and love the faith Liz epitomized. Liz also modeled her life on lessons from her sister Rita’s mother-in-law – “Look for the good in people” – and from the sisters at St. Vincent’s, who inspired her to “do good.” John and Liz never ended a day without kneeling together in prayer. Then and now, Liz regards herself unworthy of the blessings she’s received, even though her life has been filled with tragedy.
Michael’s muscular dystrophy progressed to the point that after three years of college at Edinboro
University, he became bed-ridden, requiring complete care; he could move only with assistance. For five years, Liz and John spent alternate nights with Michael, staying up, attending to his needs, and turning him every two hours to prevent bedsores. During this period, Liz began hand quilting to keep her awake, attentive to Michael’s call, and to offer a time for prayer and reflection. While she created 14 intricate and beautiful coverlets, which she could easily have sold, Liz gave away all but one of her heirloom pieces.
As Michael’s disease worsened, he lost nearly 60 pounds, but never complained. Faith-filled like
Liz, Michael prayed the rosary and trusted that “God listens.” In 1992, following a lung infection, Michael contracted pneumonia and died within hours. He was 26; physicians attribute Michael’s longevity, despite MD, to the extraordinary care he had received from his family.
Liz continued to work part-time, but John Sr. retired. Liz served family and community, sending
dinners to priests and older neighbors, and regularly visiting the Carmelite monastery. Again, crisis loomed when John Sr. was diagnosed with leukemia in 1995, necessitating chemotherapy and eventually, multiple blood transfusions each week.
In 1997, successive crises truly tested Liz, but empowered by her beliefs, she faced and endured
each trial with grace and serenity. At that time, Mark was diagnosed with leukemia, received chemotherapy, and was required to schedule regular check-ups. Months later, Joseph, then 33, was preparing to leave for a post July 4th party. Though not demonstrative, he kissed Liz good-bye, and, sensitive to the deaths of Mary Jo and Michael, and particularly impacted by seeing Mark hospitalized, he asked: “Is something going to happen to me?” Liz calmed Joe’s worries, but his premonition would be fulfilled when his car was struck broadside by a speeding vehicle just minutes after leaving home. Joe was thrown through the sunroof, crushed, and killed instantly. The 17-year-old driver, drunk and high, had been speeding through the city at 75 miles per hour,
sideswiping parked vehicles and eluding capture.
When finally caught, the young man was arrested, jailed, and charged with vehicular homicide. At his trial, the Trigilio's showed such compassion that their forgiving response was featured in the Erie Times News. The young driver spent a very short time in confinement – possibly because of the Trigilios’ expression of mercy – however, should he break his probation, he is to be imprisoned for a minimum of seven years and the Trigilio family will be notified immediately.
Disheartened by Joe’s death, John Sr. seemed to lose hope; he died within six months. He had
undergone intensive treatment, receiving regular 12-hour sessions of IV therapy, and experiencing excruciating pain. When he told Liz he didn’t want to die in the hospital, she took him home where, once again, she served as nurse and loving caretaker. John died peacefully on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, surrounded by Liz, Mark, and Father John.
In Faith and Hope
Ordained in 1988, Father John has served a number of parishes in the Harrisburg area and is currently pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Bernadette’s churches. Additionally, he has co-authored six books (including Catholicism for Dummies), is president of a national association of priests (Confraternity of Catholic Clergy) and regularly travels to Alabama to shoot Web of Faith, an award-winning program aired on EWTN.
Mark, meanwhile, has undergone therapy for leukemia twice but has been in remission since 2004;
still, he must be re-evaluated semi-annually. Although his prognosis is good, with the family’s knowledge of this illness, a sense of concern is natural.
Clearly, Liz has known tragedy, yet she has known tranquility, born and nurtured through her profound faith. Today, she serves as medical officer, nurse, chauffeur, cook, and sacristan for Erie’s Carmelite monastery; travels with Fr. John; and enjoys counted cross-stitch. Younger than her six brothers and sisters, Liz has nursed her siblings through illnesses and mourned the deaths of three. Despite a host of personal heartaches, Liz has devoted herself to patients, family, and
community, exemplifying and honoring the ideals of Christian service. Like Florence Nightingale in profession, and like Christ in spirit, Liz Trigilio faces each joy, challenge, setback, and defeat with tranquility, not only modeling, but also inspiring both faith and courage.