A little over two weeks ago I received the news that my dear friend and mentor, Isabelle Collora, passed to eternal life. I was asked to offer words of remembrance at the vigil service, the evening before her funeral. Here is what I wrote and spoke aloud to the group of family and friends that gathered to remember and celebrate Isabelle.
Isabelle Jeanette Collora: October 31, 1926 – September 9, 2018
My name is Erin Duffy-Burke. I met Isabelle in the summer of 2006, shortly before I began working as a campus minister at SMU Catholic. I was 24. I remember this sweet old lady coming up to me and asking if she could take me to IHOP for breakfast. Of course I agreed (who says no to Isabelle??) and so began a friendship that became one of the centers of my life. Isabelle, despite our 56 years difference in age, was a true friend. She’s one of the friends who has taught me what friendship is. She was never patronizing or advice-giving with me, as some older people can be. She was simply and truly my friend—she was there for me. She let me be there for her. She told me stories. She listened deeply to mine. She wanted to know what I was up to, what I was thinking, what I was reading, what was making me tick and filling me with passion and love. I wanted to know the same about her, and what I heard and witnessed filled me with unending inspiration that carries me today.
In thinking about what I was going to say today, I went back to my old journals, hoping to find something about what I thought when I first met Isabelle. What I found was entry after entry about Isabelle. My journal is filled with what I’m now calling the “Isabelle entries.” One of the first must have been the week I met her because I listed her as one of the greatest things that happened to me that week that I didn’t want to forget. I wrote: “Isabelle is an amazing kindred soul who has met Mother Theresa. I want to learn from her, to talk with her, to spend time with her, to be more like this woman with a wide open heart.” So much of what I wrote in entries to follow was some version of this one: “I am so inspired by Isabelle. I hear her stories and I want to BE more, to do more, to fall in love with the world and its people as she has done.” And this is true. Today, when I tell people about Isabelle its usually along the lines of, “she’s the reason I’m still Catholic… she’s the reason I have hope for the world… she’s the reason I know my small contribution to life matters.” She is.
Of the many, many conversations we had and the many stories I wish I had time to share about Isabelle, there are a few themes that really stick out to me that I believe have great value for all of us and that I’m sure are present in our shared memories of this magnificent life.
First, the importance of family. Isabelle made me her family and taught me that family is who we choose to love, who we prioritize in our life, and they don’t necessarily have to be of blood, although she was lucky enough to have a family of blood who adored her and are so deeply precious to her. Isabelle’s extended family of choice, her Dallas family, her SMU Catholic Family, her Homeward Bound family and more, was huge. She just scooped us up and made us all her own, made us know we belong, made us feel loved. My blood relatives were nowhere near Dallas, so Isabelle, like for so many of us, became my family. Once I got all of my wisdom teeth pulled, and Isabelle took me to my surgery and brought me back to her home—where I recuperated for the days following surgery. She fed me applesauce and smushed bananas, let me slobber all over her pillows, and from that day on said that her spare room was “my room.” When she had hip surgery I moved in to take care of her for two weeks. We watched the Olympics and the Democratic National Convention that summer, shared so many laughs and tears, grew to love each other even more. I remember once, in our morning routine of breakfast and reading the paper, begun with a prayer, she prayed, with tears in her eyes, for my mom and dad, and for all my siblings. Isabelle had a way of doing this—in seeing me, she saw my whole family. She always asked about them, and I wanted her to meet everyone I loved. When my sister lived with me one summer, Isabelle was frequently at our house, hanging out with the refugee kids Meghan cared for. When I had to go out of town that same summer, she took it upon herself to keep Meghan busy in my absence—taking her to volunteer to register voters, out to a pub and somehow, to a drum circle at White Rock Lake. She knew and loved my brother Sean, she met my friends. When my youngest sister died, Isabelle shared in the deepest grief I’ve ever known. In loving me, she loved all those I love. This seems to be because she was so connected to her own family, knew so clearly where she came from, those Italian roots she so belonged to. She got my Irish clan so well because she had her own deep and thick tribe. She knew and lived the truth that none of us stand alone, that we are all part of a greater web.
Another theme is the way she lived her Catholic faith. When I was a new campus minister, struggling to work in a Church that I so often wrestled with, she told me to read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. She said that when the Council happened in the 60s, the Pope urged all lay Catholics to read the documents, saying that the council was for them. And so, Isabelle, being Isabelle, gave herself a year to read the documents, and she did. Wow! I’m not sure I even knew then what Vatican II was, but you can believe I marched myself to a printer, found Lumen Gentium (the document on the Church) online, and printed off a copy. I spent days reading that thing in the SMU library, and understood so much of who Isabelle is. She believed and lived what that council taught—that WE are the Church, all of us, not just the priests and bishops. Once she told me that every time she goes to mass, after receiving communion, she marches back down that aisle charged with a mission to go into the world to BE the body of Christ. For her, faith was something you PARTICIPATED in, something you did. Again, she took seriously the Vatican II call for the “full and active participation of the faithful.” It brought her into full participation in her LIFE, in the world around her. She lived her baptismal call as priest, prophet, and king, or more accurately in her case, priestess, prophetess, queen, and indeed, Isabelle was a true servant queen of the Church here in Dallas, a needed voice on councils and boards, a woman sought after to give talks and explain Catholic teaching in a way that made sense to people. She became a valued presence in interfaith dialogue in Dallas. She volunteered and taught catechism to kids and lived Catholic Social Teaching in so many ways, most importantly her founding of Homeward Bound with Doug Denton. She brought her faith to her politics, always seeking and living integration. Isabelle was a Catholic leader in this city and she led through relationships—one at a time, loving people and holding space for transformation. When I think of what it means to be Catholic, to be it truly, with great love, to live like Christ, I think of Isabelle. What would Isabelle do? That’s a guiding question of my life.
Finally, I think simply of her lightheartedness, her joy, the “alegria” with which she lived her life. She taught me this word once and she embodied it. It means a profound joy, a savoring of life, a delight. Isabelle had this in every way. In one of the ‘Isabelle entries’ I wrote about how much she loved to laugh, how she would laugh at funny things and just normal things, how delighted she was in life. She LOVED deeply the things of life—long meals and delicious food; music and art and beautiful clothes; the faces of others and the play of children; intellectual questions and conversations. And her delight wasn’t just in her own life, but in mine, in all of ours. She delighted for me when I moved away to study theology in California. She delighted in my finding as she calls him, “my sweetheart.” She was determined to come to my wedding three years ago, she sang in the choir and stayed to the very end of our reception, dancing away. She delighted in her Peter and in the relationship they had and the life they built. She delighted in their ongoing relationship after his death, telling me once that sometimes he would “visit her” at night, when things were still and quiet. One of my first thoughts after hearing of her passing, after the sadness was, “Oh! Now she gets to be with her Peter!” and I felt such total joy, such alegria. She is with her Peter. With Charlene. With Andrew. With her mother and father and her little mother… with my Caity… with so many others who have gone before her. She has, truly, joined the communion of saints. And she continues to be with us, each of us, in the unique, particular and beautiful way she was friend to each of us, in this life, only now, Eternally, magnified, more magnificent and even more real. Thank you, dear Isabelle, for being my friend. I will always love you, as you have loved me so well. Thank you.