Vocal, Spirit-filled, Courageous Women: Remembering Renee in Mary’s Month


My daughters love the month of May for so many reasons. Dormant plants delightfully spring up in our yard: the sorrel and the rhubarb, the lilacs and the apple tree leaves, the irises and the peonies. Mother’s Day and their mother’s birthday come and go (always grand celebrations!). The days lengthen, and bedtimes extend, as the school year winds down, and the return of bicycles and the hammock foretell of summer rhythms.

We also remember May as Mary’s month. Her Feast of the Visitation soon will be celebrated. We will recall again that, after dialoguing with the angel Gabriel, Mary goes not to any male figure – Joseph, her father, the religious authorities – but to her cousin Elizabeth, with whom she recounts the mysterious workings of God. Courage and wisdom imbue the encounter between these two women who are mothers.

A tree planted in Renee Buettner’s Baltimore yard bloomed over Easter weekend.

Vocal, Spirit-filled and courageous, these women model faith for us today as parents trying to live in justice, mercy, and peace. In their lives and voice, I recognize also the lives of holy women and men of our time, who have shared their faith with their children and other people’s children and with us all.

My friend’s mother comes to mind, a beautiful soul, a saint. Renee (pronounced REE-nee…short for Maureen) passed away this winter all too soon. Numerous stories and articles remembered her in the days after her passing. The Baltimore Sun published a write-up of her life, and this article from more than a year ago captures the family’s devotion through Renee’s illness. 

If I were to create a word cloud from these tributes, I would elevate words and phrases like mother, educator, devoted to each other, generosity, catholic, athlete, founder, social justice, went to their homes, housed asylum seekers, Romero, Merton, mystic, there, but by the grace of God, go I, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.

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Renee with students in 2008.

The Great One did great things in and through Renee’s life, and the crowd who gathered to remember her testified to this magnificent working of God. Few ordinary souls could pack a church like it’s Easter, with folks filling the pews and the choir loft, standing along the side aisles and below in the overflow at her funeral celebration.

I was reminded how much human experience the divine liturgy can hold, as I witnessed again her family’s characteristic good humor, profound faith, and boldness in the pursuit of peace. Every core emotion was simultaneously present and intensely felt: sadness at the passing of an irreplaceably beloved woman; anger that Alzheimer’s ended her life too soon (if not for the disease, she’d still be on the picket lines and in the classroom, noted her daughter); joy, uproarious laughter at times during the funeral, even to the point of clapping when Renee’s husband introduced himself as “Mr. Renee;” peace, a thankfulness for all that had been, a  responsiveness to what is, and a real trust in eschatological hope and in the communion of saints; and power, my, was there power in that room! Power in the just and generous witness of Renee’s life, power in her daughters’ testimonies, power in the community gathered, power in Word and Sacrament.

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Renee with Katy, one of her four daughters and the author’s friend from their days as students at Wheeling Jesuit University.

I am grateful that my daughters could hear the collective witness of this woman of faith. To see how many people came to remember and honor Renee, the ripples of lives touched. To hear the scriptures proclaimed and to sense how she embodied those sacred words. To hear Renee addressed as if she were in the room and had, as the priest quipped, “invited a few of her friends.” To sing songs of justice: Micah 6:8 as the opening, and then the closing song, a victorious tune: “We will drink the cup, we will win the fight, we will stand against the darkness of the night, we will run the race…” I am glad for those words to be on my daughters’ lips, and for the sounds of communal singing to reverberate through them, and for all of this storytelling and ritual to shape their memory.

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Renee’s family, friends, and greater community gathered in April to ceremonially name the street in front of the school where she taught in her honor.

That moment felt like a Visitation moment, a glimpse into the presence of God within and among us in powerful and in hidden ways. The mystery continues to unfold and to play out again and again in the particularities of our lives, as parents trying model a loving, prophetic witness to the One who, without fail, is doing great things. In the mystery of the Visitation, and in the communion of saints – with Mary, the Theotokos, Elizabeth, Renee, and countless others – we find courage and agency to commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ our God, and to work towards the unfolding of God’s reign of peace, mercy and justice in our time.

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