My Friend Eileen

I lost a good friend a few days ago. Her name was Eileen Shackleton of Altadena, California. She died just two weeks shy of her 100th birthday. 

I first met Eileen in 2006. The word “met” is misleading, for I didn’t actually meet her face to face until 2010. But in 2006 she wrote me a letter telling me how much she liked my writing. The letter, written in perfect

Eileen Shakleton

Eileen Shackleton

penmanship on lined notebook paper, was six pages long. In it she described a presentation she had given to a group of Associates of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. (She was an Associate with them for 17 years). She based part of her talk on my book, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality. Her presentation was creative, inspiring, and dabbed with humor. I thought, “What a remarkable woman!” It was only in the last paragraph that she told me she was 91 years old!

Of course, I wrote back to Eileen. When someone writes: “I want to thank you a zillion times for your inspiring writing,” how can you not respond?! My letter started a correspondence—and a friendship—that lasted for 9 years.

After over three years of exchanging letters and enjoying a few phone calls, Eileen and I finally met in 2010 when I was giving a talk in Anaheim. One of her friends drove her to the L.A. airport to pick me up. When I spotted Eileen walking towards me, I saw a tall, lean women with perfect posture. Her grayish hair was neatly coiffed. Her smile was broad. No one would have ever guessed she was 95. I stayed at her house that afternoon, meeting Sister Gemma Fisher, her dearest friend, who lived with her. She and Gemma had been friends for over 30 years. When Gemma’s convent closed, Gemma was given permission by her religious congregation to move in with Eileen. They lived together until Gemma’s health gradually deteriorated and she had to move to her congregation’s health care facility three hours away. Although both women knew this move was necessary, it was extremely painful for them. Months later when Eileen was missing Gemma so much she started crying to me over the phone, I said to her, “Your pain is so deep, Eileen, because your love for Gemma is so deep.” (Gemma and Eileen died five days apart.)

Over the years I learned more about Eileen—for example, she was, indeed, related to Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famed British explorer of the Antarctic.  Eileen graduated from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and

Eileen with her only sibling who died as a young girl.

Eileen (right) with her only sibling Dorothy who died as a young girl.

then worked for Southern California Edison until her retirement in the 1970’s. She never married. Once she showed me some pictures of herself as a young woman. In one, she was wearing white shorts and looked beautiful—like a young Katharine Hepburn. She admitted she had had two marriage proposals, but neither gentleman was right for her, she said. Being single, she devoted her time and talents to her parish, her friends, and beyond. In her parish, she sang in the choir, taught catechism to children and adults, was a lector at Mass and a Eucharistic minister to the sick. For 20 years she conducted Communion Services at a retirement home in Pasadena. At these services, she always gave a homily, often using (she said) “some of your stories.” Eileen was very generous. She once showed me a list of charitable organizations she regularly sent checks to, saying, “I only wish I could help more.”

Eileen loved nature. She wrote: “I love working in my garden and I live just a few blocks from the mountains. I’m also fond of animals.” She walked a mile every morning until she was 99. The second time I visited her, she drove me to several different places. At first, I was hesitant to get into a car with a 97-year-old driver. But my fears were soon allayed, for Eileen was a very good driver. She even parallel parked three times with ease!

Eileen also had a remarkable ability to befriend people. She once wrote: “I thank God daily for putting a plethora of warm, friendly, caring people in my life that are truly a reflection of God’s love.” God put these people in her life, yes, but it was she who elicited their warmth and caring by her own goodness and love.

Eileen and I sitting on her front stoop.

Eileen and I in 2010 sitting on her front stoop.

Eileen was prayerful. Her rosary and prayer books sat on the table next to her living room chair. She was honest in her prayer too. Once she had to have an MRI. She told me as she lay in the machine, she prayed, “Your will be done, Lord. Your will be done.” Then she said, “But, Melannie, I didn’t mean it! I wanted MY will to be done!” I said, “It often takes time for our hearts to catch up with the prayers we utter. And that’s okay. God understands.”

Recently I was reading excerpts from a book entitled The Road to Character by David Brooks. I thought of Eileen when I read: “Love decenters the self.” And, “Some people seem to have been born into this world with a sense of indebtedness for the blessing of being alive.” Brook also says there’s a difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the job market. The eulogy virtues “are deeper…, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” I thank our Good God for putting Eileen—this kind, honest, and faithful friend—into my life. May she rest in peace.

The song today is “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. As you listen, you might want to recall the good friends you have and those you’ve had to say “goodbye” to…



Does anything touch you about my friend Eileen?

Have you had similar friendships in your life?

Do any words of the song speak to you today?

PS: You may have noticed that I posted a new picture of myself on this blog. The previous one was about ten years old, so I thought it was time to update it (and accept the fact that I have a few more gray hairs and a few more pounds!) I want to thank my friend Sr. Patricia Pasek for taking this picture at my Golden Jubilee celebration a couple of weeks ago.


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  1. Kathleen on August 10, 2015 at 5:36 am

    Sr. Melannie,

    I have lost a few folks to death this week. A good reflection for me to hear.

    I have a friend who I have known for 40 years. We can pick up where we left off when we get together. He has been a blessing to me in so many ways.

    So sorry for your loss.


  2. Nancy Ann Frederico on August 10, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Dear Sr. Melannie

    Congratulations again on your Golden Jubilee Year! May our Good God continue to bless you every day!

    Thank you for this wonderful story and life of Eileen Shackleton. I was touched by her gracefulness and prayerfulness as she lived her life and how she opened her home and heart to Sr. Gemma Fisher in her time of need. How important it was for her to connect with you!

    I am inspired by her life and with her grace-filled passing.

    My sympathy to you and her family.


  3. Jean Hartl on August 10, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Sr. Melanie,
    Just a perfect way to start a week. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Sharon on August 10, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Thanks so much, Melannie! This one was very meaningful to me in view of the past two months!
    Thanks for continuing to share with us!

  5. Sister Miriam on August 10, 2015 at 9:51 am

    I’m burying by 97 year old Father in a couple hours and this song really touched me, many thanks.

  6. Patty on August 10, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Dear Sister Melannie,

    Praying for you and for your friend, Eileen; and thinking of the words of Sister Joyce Rupp: “God never sends us where he is not already waiting our arrival.”



  7. Mary Therese on August 10, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Thank you for generously sharing Eileen with us. What a wonderful reminder that making friends, even as we age, is vital to being fully human.How generously God provides us with friendships if we open our minds and hearts to the opportunities that come our way. I’m sorry for your loss, but know the joy of your friendship with her will far outlasts your grief.

  8. Carol McH on August 10, 2015 at 10:28 am

    What a beautiful person, your friend Eileen. I’m sorry for your loss, but happy for the gain of such a treasured relationship!


  9. Peggy Svoboda on August 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Dear Cousin Dolly,

    What a beautiful tribute to your friend Eileen. She sounds like such a lovely person! You have my sympathy in your loss. The song, “Friends,” brought tears to my eyes, as I thought about the good friends I have lost. I do feel blessed to have so many good friends still here.


  10. Annie on August 10, 2015 at 11:49 am

    Thank you so much for your beautiful reflection. Eileen is a special person and you have my deepest sympathy as you “let her go in the Father’s hands.” I haven’t heard that song for years, and it was good to hear it again. It brought memories of deep friendship that endures beyond death. Thank you again. I am honored to call you friend!

  11. Karen on August 10, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you Sr. Melannie! I am rewarded almost daily with the presence of my 95 year old mother in law and reminded how strong, faith-filled and wise these women can be. They enrich our lives and set examples we can only hope to emulate.
    I would ask for your prayers for my mother-in-law and I this Wednesday, when we will take the Honor Flight to Washington DC. This remarkable woman served in WWII and will see the WWII memorial for the first time and again receive much-deserved recognition for her service.

  12. Dae Probst on August 10, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you Sister for sharing this beautiful story. You have made Eileen a part of our lives too from your sharing. The song you picked us so perfect. It made me think of the many friends in my life that have formed my spirituality. One of my favorite nuns in high school was a sister of Notre Dame, Sr. St.Joseph and to this day I remember her sharing of her family and how they formed her to be who she was to that day. Thank you for your vocation and sharings that you give to all of us to help us grow in our faith.

  13. Sally McEachen on August 10, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you Melanie for your words about Eileen. I also have been a good friend and an Associate with Eileen. I have especially been blessed to journey with her daily these past four months. As you know and said Eileen was such a special woman! She always spoke so highly of you and many of us were able to meet and hear you at Ramona Convent in Alhambra, Ca.. We now have another angel looking down on us as well as Gemma. Thank you again Melanie! She loved the flowers you sent her and had them right near her. Today was her 100th birthday and we celebrated it at Mass and then went out for breakfast.
    I love the song you shared and hope to get a copy!

  14. Maryann on August 10, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    My heart is with you, Sr. Melannie, over the loss of your friend. What a wonderful tribute you’ve given her here for a long life well lived. Those of us who didn’t know Eileen personally, know her now through your words. As a woman who is also “flying solo,” I find Eileen’s legacy of love and service and friendship to be inspirational.

  15. Flo Valentine on August 10, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    Simply beautiful!

  16. Pat McDonnell on August 10, 2015 at 11:52 pm

    I knew and admired Eileen Shackleton. I want to thank you, Sr. Melannie, for the wonderful tribute to her.

    I lost my childhood friend, Sue, last August. We met in the 3rd grade and stayed best friends for 62 years. We took many vacations together – before our children were born, with the children and in retirement again without the children. We always went somewhere that we could swim. Sue loved to swim in the ocean, me not so much. But I would always join her in whatever body of water we encountered. Fifteen days after she died, I was feeling my grief, so, I went to the ocean and decided to jump in and take a swim. I swam out beyond the breakers (had a person spotting me on the beach) when a seal popped its head out of the water 2 feet in front of me. The seal looked right at me then swam away. I choose to believe that Sue sent me a message that day. I have found a lot of comfort in my experience with the seal.

  17. Joy on August 11, 2015 at 7:58 am

    My “Sister” Liz retired today…we worked together for 23 yrs…my heart is
    broken…we celebrated life, death, birthdays, traveled together, and broke
    bread many times together…your message and music are much appreciated
    & very timely…Liz is kind, honest & a faithful friend…she will be greatly missed…

  18. Jane McCarthy on August 11, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Sister Melanie
    This beautiful story brought tears to my eyes. We will pray for the healing of your loss. Our Paul Todd, music director at St. Agnes in Naples, Florida,
    has written a song called “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” that’s where your friend, Eileen, is.

  19. Melannie Svoboda SND on August 12, 2015 at 10:30 am

    A big THANK YOU for all who responded to this week’s bog on Eileen. I also appreciate your expressions of sympathy and prayers for all of us who called her “friend.” Thank you too for sharing your experiences with friendship…and sympathy to those who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one! Sincerely, Sr. Melannie

  20. Kathy on August 12, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Sr. Melanie thank you for the hug and well wishes via Sr. Renetta we had our monthly breakfast and I get to hear all about the Sister’s and it was joy to hear about your retreat. Last fall our steps of faith group studied your book Traits of a Healthy Spirituality. It was wonderful. I also enjoy your seeds of faith. Be Blessed.

  21. Tom on August 12, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for the inspiring story. It came at a good time since a dear 95 year old friend here at Regina is awaiting his heavenly reward.

    I like your new ‘now’ photo. Now you have to change it on your bio page.

  22. Kathy Hassink on August 17, 2015 at 1:40 am

    Dear Cousin –
    Sorry to hear of the loss of your friend but how blessed you both were to have crossed paths! She sounds like a wonderful woman and I’m sure you will treasure your memories of her.
    p.s. I love your new photo!
    Take care – Kathy

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