By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
It was 1982, and Concepcion Pequeño of Kenner was dying.
Concepcion’s husband Joaquin had passed away 10 months earlier, and, now, the widow and mother of nine adult children was consumed with just one thought: Who would care for her 25-year-old daughter Norma, her youngest, who was born with Down syndrome in 1957 and had lived with her parents for her entire life.
Virginia Pequeño, Concepcion’s daughter who was 18 years older than Norma, stepped up in the midst of what had been a calamitous period in her life. She was about to lose both parents within a year, and she had gone through a difficult divorce.
“My mom was worried about what would happen with Norma,” Virginia said. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I will take her.’ I had never had any children. I started by inviting Norma to spend the weekends with me.”
Everything seemed to be going just fine with that arrangement until Norma went back to her mother’s house on a Monday and told her quietly: “I don’t want to do weekends with Gina.”
Surprised, Concepcion asked why.
“Gina doesn’t go to church,” Norma replied.
When Virginia heard what Norma had confided in their mother, it was as though 10 years of her life apart from the Catholic Church, an offshoot of her personal trials, had vanished instantly.
“It was a sign from God that it was time for me to go back,” Virginia said. “It was a time when I really needed our Lord to help me get through the period I was going through. But there’s no question, it was Norma who brought me back.”
After Concepcion passed away, Virginia took Norma every Sunday to Nativity of Our Lord Church in Kenner, where Norma continued her unassuming, missionary work simply through her presence. When the collection basket came, Norma always dug into her purse to find a couple of loose pennies to drop in.
“She embarrassed me, so I started making my offering every week,” Virginia said. “I tell you, she would put you to shame.”
Every time Norma walked up the aisle for Communion, she appeared to be transfixed.
“It was her devotion when she went up the aisle,” Virginia recalled. “Other people commented to me that it was so wonderful to see her looking up, as though she was seeing something.”
Norma’s reverence for the Eucharist emotionally touched Adrian Dominican Sister Judy Zynda, who was the choir director at Nativity of Our Lord. One day in the early 1990s, Sister Judy asked Norma if she wanted to serve at Mass, and Virginia played the role of supportive parent.
“I asked Norma if she wanted to be an altar server and help the priest, and she said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure!’” Virginia said.
For the next six months, Norma worked with Sister Judy and Deacon Eddie Beckendorf, who was in charge of the altar servers at Nativity and whose own daughter Keri also had developmental difficulties.
To help Norma learn her altar-serving duties, Virginia pulled out her ironing board and propped it up as a makeshift altar. Kitchen glasses became the chalice and cruets, and a glass bowl became the vessel into which the server would pour water over the priest’s hands.
“We would practice every Sunday morning so that it would be fresh in her mind,” Virginia said. “After a while, she knew how to do everything exactly right.”
Sister Judy said Norma became so adept she could correct the other altar servers if they had “a brain freeze.”
“They would look over at Norma to know what to do,” Sister Judy said. “She made no mistakes, no mistakes. She couldn’t focus on a lot of things at once, but she could focus on one thing. She would just glow.”
Norma was never afraid to speak up, either, when she sensed something was not quite right. Deacon Beckendorf said when Bishop Dominic Carmon came to Nativity one year for a Confirmation Mass, he was coughing and sneezing from a cold as they lined up for the entrance procession.
“Norma was standing in line and asked Bishop Carmon, ‘Are you sick?’ and Bishop Carmon told her, ‘Yes,’” Deacon Beckendorf recalled. “And then she told him, ‘Are you sure you want to go on? We can stop now.’” Norma’s 17 years of service culminated in the parish naming her Altar Server of the Year.
Norma said ‘yes’
As Virginia became more involved with the church, she assumed responsibilities as a co-facilitator of the parish’s Small Christian Communities with Nick Boyce, whose wife had died in 1994. After several years, they grew closer and began contemplating marriage. Virginia received a declaration of nullity from her first marriage, and they married in 2003, but not until Nick got Norma’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
“Virginia told me she couldn’t have any involvement with me unless Norma accepted me,” Nick said, laughing. “Norma was a package.”
On their wedding day, Norma walked down the aisle again, eyes raised, as Virginia’s maid of honor.
For the last 20 years, Norma spent most of her days socializing at Magnolia Community Services in Jefferson, where she “never had a bad day,” said Magnolia director Jennifer Hebert. “She was the most positive person I’ve ever met.”
About three years ago, Norma developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and glaucoma, and she began a slow slide. As her death approached, Father Steve Bruno, pastor of St. Rita Church in Harahan, was called out of the blue to come and anoint her.
Not knowing who the dying woman was, Father Bruno was floored when the family told him. In the 1990s, before Father Bruno had entered the seminary, he was a music minister who played guitar and sang at Mass at Nativity, the same Masses which Norma had served.
“She always had such a joyful spirit,” Father Bruno said. “Sometimes, families think it is a detriment and an unwanted thing in their lives to have children such as Norma, but there are other families I’ve seen who have been transformed by the sheer joy of these children, a joy that permeates the whole family.”
Norma, age 62, died on a Sunday morning, Nov. 17, at 12:35 a.m. “She was sleeping peacefully,” Nick Boyce said.
A special advocate
In the last few years, Virginia’s kidneys have begun to fail. She is on dialysis. But she draws strength from the little sister who transformed her life and brought her back to the church. She believes she now has a missionary to pray for her.
“When I was asked to be a minister of Communion, I didn’t know if I could do it,” Virginia said, “but then I thought, if Norma can be an altar server, why can’t I do that? Norma had a simple faith in our Lord. Her favorite prayer was just talking to Jesus.”
On all those Sunday mornings, as Norma walked the center aisle at Nativity of Our Lord, the only thing she had to do was look up. She saw something.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.