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At the Requiem for Viola Ellison

At the Requiem for Viola Ellison
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
St. Thomas Church in New York City
21 April 2010

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We have traveled various distances to gather in Vi’s parish church to give thanks to God for every remembrance we have of her, to pray to God for her, and to say and to hear that our Lord Jesus Christ opens the door to his Father’s house where many mansions, many rooms, have been prepared for those who put their trust in him.

Over the years I’ve known people who know how to work. And I’ve known people who know how to play. Vi was neither one. She did not have to work to live, and neither did she live to play. Better than most anyone I’ve known, she knew how to live. Parts of her program were studies of the piano and the French language. She liked very much to arrange flowers for the altar at a nearer parish, All Saints, on 60th Street. But friends and conversation, I think, were more important and essential to her way of life.

I remember quite clearly my introduction to her a few feet from where I stand. She was leaning over the piscina in the sacristy washing a chalice after the early Eucharist on a Sunday morning in 1984. And when the Verger mentioned my name, before she looked up, I saw her smile. To my view, she has never stopped smiling.

After Carolyne and I married, Vi invited us to dinner, and that began a round of parties, and gatherings, and visits that continued steadily until rather recently. She welcomed and included us with many of her friends, and with them we learned how much she understood people’s dispositions, if not their inexplicable eccentricities, and how skillfully and charitably she made her way around those very human shortcomings. Doormen, housekeepers, maîtres d’hôtel, and her care-givers were as much a part of her friends and conversation, and concern, as friends in Rhode Island, or in Saratoga, or in Arkansas, or in North Carolina, or on Cape Cod. Vi put herself on the level of all of these friends gracefully and gently, and in most instances, as she did so, she performed an act of humility.

I recall one lunch during a summer when she defined herself with clarity. She said that many people are not able to tell the truth, or, rather, she said, many people are fearful of living with the consequences of telling the truth. The road she had determined to travel was the road whereon she took responsibility for her words and her actions. This self-definition I admired and loved about her.

When her years of playing tennis and swimming no longer kept away the consequences of time, and when her reliance upon her friends and care-givers made war with her flinty independence, she had to compromise with standards she had set for herself. We saw her most often when she was at her best while others learned how difficult her circumstances were for her to endure.

At last, though, ten days from her ninetieth birthday, her time came. With the ministrations of her priest very recently received and with her very close and very dear friend on the way, she relied a little more on the Lord who redeemed her. I recall she once said that she had to come to New York to learn that there were saints not named in the Bible. But she knew, however, all that she needed to know. She knew, as she had read in her daily devotions for many years, that under the Lord Almighty’s throne his saints have dwelt secure: sufficient is his arm alone, and our defence is sure. Amen.


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