Sister Nancy Bonshock SNDdeN (formerly Robert Gail)
April 22, 1947 – August 8, 2019
Surely, St. Julie was at heaven’s door with open arms on Thursday morning, August 8, to welcome Nancy with the greeting we SND’s long to hear: “I saw you, my child, at Compiegne!” Nancy was just the kind of woman St. Julie had in mind when she founded our congregation in 1804:
First, since God had revealed to Julie that her Institute would be marked by the cross, she wanted women of courage, who had deep-rooted trust that God would sustain them in times of testing. She wanted them to practice simplicity: always turning toward God (as sunflowers to the sun), always reflecting God’s goodness and love, whatever their circumstances (like crystals sparkling with refracted light). Julie insisted on an obedience that was mature and free - tempered by what she called liberty of spirit. She wanted women filled with love, whose hearts were wide as the world, embracing all people. She expected readiness to move beyond customary comfort zones to the poor in the most abandoned places. (Highlights from our SND Constitutions, Charism & Founding)
God began preparing Nancy for Notre Dame life and mission long before she encountered SNDs at Notre Dame High School, Moylan (PA). Her formation started, just as St. Julie’s did, at home. “Thank you, Good God,” she wrote on her 50th jubilee, “for the gold in my life: For my Mom and Dad who taught me devotion to faith and family, and how to appreciate life’s gifts and handle life’s sorrows.” She went on with a veritable litany of thanksgiving for the countless blessings and lasting example received from her extended family – courage, generosity, hospitality, zest for life, a sense of wonder, “boisterous celebrations,” and “hugs, stories and adventures.” The biography accompanying her application to our congregation had summed it up well: “The closeness of my family has had the greatest influence in making me the person I am.”
Her application also reflects how the seeds of Julie’s charism were already growing in Nancy’s heart when this self-described “normal, healthy, happy teenager who loves life and lives it to the fullest” arrived at Ilchester. Her phrasing is characteristically focused and forthright – simple, as St. Julie would say:
I’m rather quiet and reserved around people I don’t know well, but when I’m with those I do know, I’m my true self. . . . Being human, I have my faults . . . Inside myself, I have always wanted to be a religious, but until this year I lacked the courage to admit it. I sincerely admire the spirit of giving, of total dedication possessed by all Sisters . . . . To enter the Sisters of Notre Dame is now my chief aim.
Enter she did, in 1965, and was admitted to first promises in ’68. Then, as a junior sister in Washington, DC, she earned a B.A. in history (1970). Degree in hand, she was missioned to Little Flower High School, Philadelphia, to teach U.S. History. These were vitally important years of expanding horizons. Her Trinity courses had included Introduction to [American] Indian Thought. At Little Flower, she helped moderate the school’s Community Service Corps (a volunteer tutoring program). On a province survey, she registered openness to teaching in inner-city or rural settings (Appalachia, perhaps) “in a few years when I’m better prepared to do so.”
God took her at her word. August of 1973 found her headed to New Mexico, to spend two years at St. Michael’s High School on a Navajo Reservation as a full-time social studies teacher-in-residence. Her letters to the Sisters back home are filled with admiration:
There is something special here. The Spirit lives in the Navajo Beauty Way. There is a call to be silent, to take life as it comes, to put aside pressures of time, etc., that we allow to dominate our lives. I guess that it’s a call for wholeness—harmony, as the Navajos call it. What a gift these people have—and are!
Teaching at St. Michael’s . . . is more than a job. It’s a way of life—a living, breathing experience, a meeting and sharing of different cultures. . . . Every day I am also a student—learning from girls of various tribal backgrounds a somewhat different way of life. [She laughs along with her students at her awkwardness as they try to teach her their tribal dances and tonal language!]
The Indian peoples, though naturally poor, have a richness of culture more abundant than my words can describe This they need to believe and feel—rather than feeling the weight of Anglo “superiority’ calling them to adopt our way of life. I hope that my teaching and living with these girls conveys to them my respect for their cultures and, at the same time, opens for them opportunities to become educated and skilled in such ways that they will be able to help their own people fight the oppression, the poverty, the alcoholism, the suicide . . .
I am very much in love with life on the Navajo reservation. Just yesterday I was out in the northern part . . . There, the majority of the Navajos still live in the old mud hogans, with no electricity, water, etc. This is the U.S. in 1975, and our people live in mud dwellings. Incredible! . . . St. Julie’s vision was that we would work with the poor in the most neglected places. We have hardly begun to do this in the U.S.
The vow formula Nancy composed for her final profession (August 1973) seems to reflect her Navajo experience:
God, our Father, I believe in You, and so offer You the “Yes” of my life.
I vow forever to live celibately as a Sister of Notre Dame, sharing my strength and my weakness, my hope and my love with all of Your people. I pray that my life, and that of my community, may ever bear witness to the dignity of all persons. / I vow forever to live poorly and simply, holding all things in common with the community. I pray that through this communal sharing we may proclaim the beauty of creation and so never misuse the goods of this earth. / I vow forever to live obediently, open to You, Lord, as You speak through the people and events of each day. I pray that I may never turn a deaf ear to the call of another in our common search for justice and peace in our world. / You alone, Lord, give life to my “Yes.” Strengthen me that I may daily respond to Your Gospel as a woman of prayer in the service of others. Amen.
When she returned from the Reservation to make final vows, Nancy was missioned to the Academy of Notre Dame in Villanova, PA, where her teaching would span four decades. Building on her Navajo experience and related course work at Northern Arizona University, she managed to combine full-time teaching with pursuit of a Master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her students reaped the benefits! Nancy’s anthropology course at the Academy was a favorite, and seven students even accompanied her to New Mexico one summer. One alumna recalls the “amazing and truly transformative experience” the Villanova students had, “working with the Pueblo Indian children and families” while Nancy was teaching in a Pueblo summer school.
Nancy’s vow formula promises obedience to God’s “speaking through the people and events of each day.” Perhaps her obedience is best seen in her brave response to crosses that marked her SND life: her father’s unexpected and sudden death; her mother’s long illness; her niece Aimee’s brutal roadside murder; her diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer when she was still in her prime; her years of aggressive, debilitating treatment. Through it all, she was our star witness to tenacious faith, deep-rooted trust in the good God, and active surrender.
Her obedience was mature, free, and tempered by liberty of spirit. She had the courage to submit to every kind of treatment that offered hope of healing and to recognize when it was time to start letting go. She left the classroom, she said, “while I am still a well-respected teacher, and while I have energy to prepare for my second ministry.” She enrolled in Jefferson Hospital’s CPE program and, as an intern, practiced bedside pastoral care with the compassion that only a “wounded healer” can offer. When CPE demands became too great, she volunteered to visit homebound members of her parish, St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford (PA). And when she saw it was time, she freely chose first, to move to Villa Julie; then into palliative care; and ultimately hospice care.
Nancy’s trust in God was absolute. Her life and her death have much to teach us:The will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you . . .,where the spirit of God cannot work through you . . ., where the peace of God cannot calm your fears . . ., where the miracles of God cannot be done for you . . ., where the omnipotence of God cannot find you. (Author unknown)
- Born April 22, 1947, Ridley Park, PA
- Parents: Anthony Albert and Ann Marie Gavin Bonshock
- Siblings: Robert (deceased) and Gail Bonshock Willard
- Entered Notre Dame September 12, 1965
- First Promises: August 14, 1968
- Final Vows: August 24, 1973
- Our Lady of Charity Parish School, Brookhaven, PA
- Notre Dame High School, Moylan PA
- Trinity College, Washington, DC – B.A. (History), 1970
- Northern Arizona University, part-time study (1973-75)
- University of Pennsylvania, M.S. (Anthropology), 1979
- Clinical Pastoral Education Student/Intern – Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 2015 – 2017
- Little Flower HS, Philadelphia PA (1970-73, U.S. History)
- St. Michael HS, Gallup, NM (1973 – 75, Social Studies) – Navajo Reservation – Teacher in Residence
- Academy of Notre Dame, Villanova, PA:
- 1975 –2015, History Teacher;
- 2015, Senior Alumnae Advisor, Advancement Department (Alumnae educational programming and fund-raising)
- Intern - Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, 2015-2017
- Volunteer Pastoral Visitor, St. John Chrysostom Parish, Wallington, PA, 2017-18
Retirement - Ministry of Prayer
Villa Julie Residence, Stevenson, MD (August 1, 2018)
Prepared by Mary Ann Cook, SND