"Ellie Mockler-if ye be in this room- stand up and wave!"
April would prove to be a momentous month in the life of Helen Mary Mockler. Born on April 1, 1889 in County Galway, Ireland, little could she have foreseen events to come of another April day in the distant future.
Currafarry, the little village where "Ellie" was born, is an out-of-the-way spot near the town of Ballinasloe, where she spent a happy girlhood with a loving and energetic family. It was a hard place to make a living, as many generations from the village were to realize. It was a place to launch forth for greener pastures. Along with two other women and three young men from her hometown, Ellie ventured into the larger world, in her words, "for the adventure of it". She was the last of the three sisters to leave home and parents, whom she would never see again. Sisters Bridget Lynch and Marie Bradley, who paid Ellie's steamship fare, would be waiting in America, where Ellie claimed she "was coming to make my fortune".
With scant baggage she ferried out to Titanic from Queenstown on April 12th, and remembered spotting the golden letters spelling out the name of the ill-fated vessel as her tender came alongside.
On Sunday night Ellie was walking out on deck in steerage when she recalled, "…the whole ship shook. We knew something was wrong but nobody told us what." She had a memory of the chickens escaping from the kitchens and running around on deck. "no one seemed to be worried then, and one woman was playing the piano." Suddenly concerned about her few paltry possessions back in the cabin, Ellie started to go back to her room but was stopped by a man on deck who said, "Forget your bag- if you save yourself you'll be lucky!" She continued, "Many passengers stayed below deck-nobody told them to come up."
"Everyone was calm on the ship-no one knew what was happening." At one point they all knelt on the deck to say the Rosary. She remembered two priests on deck giving absolution. Finally someone approached the three women to get into the boat. Ellie balked at going over the side in the dark. "Is there a bottom to it?"she asked nervously. As she crawled over the side she looked back at the three countrymen, still kneeling on the deck-all were lost. Once in the boat, she bobbed about on the ocean until dawn with those saved in the boat having to constantly bail the leaking craft out with their hands until the Carpathia arrived.
She spent the cold night clad only in her dress and a life vest. "It was a very cold night, we watched the Titanic sink until the last light went under the water. Then everything was calm and smooth. You wouldn't even have known there had been a ship. The two men in the lifeboat rowed during the night. We didn't see any other lifeboats. If the band played Nearer My God to Thee, I never heard it."
Ellie was listed as among the missing when the sad news reached New York. The sisters sent for the parish priest when they believed their sister drowned. "I don't believe that—we're going to pray," cried the priest. Then he urged the sisters to get their coats and hats and accompany him down to St. Vincent's Hospital where survivors were being examined prior to being released to their families. The priest entered the makeshift ward, stood on a chair and called out "Ellie Mockler, if ye be in this room, will ye stand up and wave!" Ellie promptly popped up and one of her sisters fainted in a heap on the floor. Later she would remember the party given by the New York City police department on the Sunday after the rescue, right after Mass.
Ellie worked for the National Biscuit Company for five years in the New York area, enjoying the company of her nieces, nephews and sisters before getting the call to her religious vocation. "Her experience aboard the Titanic and just after had nothing to do with her decision to enter the Sisters of Mercy," said one of Ellie's convent friends. She entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy, Worcester, Massachusetts in 1917 and took her final vows in 1925, becoming Sr. Mary Patricia.
Of her 67 years as a Religious in Worcester, 34 were spent in the sacristy of St. Paul's Cathedral. Father McGrail remembers her "like a port in the storm of cathedral ceremonies, especially during Holy Week and Easter" when tensions ran high. Pleasant and unruffled, calmly pressing linens in the sacristy in her black habit and white apron, is the way many of her sisters will recall her. Her meticulous attention to the care of the altar has been praised by many bishops and priests, and her cheerful manner, twinkling eyes and ready smile endeared her to the community of sisters.
Sister Angela Perry has a memory of one Easter, spending the day with Sr. Patricia at the cathedral polishing, scrubbing and arranging hundreds of pots of lilies and flowers. When it was all done to perfection, the two nuns stepped back to survey their work. Sr. Patricia narrowed her eyes critically and said "I don't like it- we'll take it all down and start again". When it was re-done to her satisfaction the two sisters made their way back to the convent where Sister Patricia whispered "Make yourself scarce or they'll give you something else to do!"
In later years, Sister Patricia, with good humor, indulged anyone who came to ask her about Titanic, giving herself the title of "The Tourist Attraction". She loved a good cup of strong tea and a trip on Saturday to McDonald's for an order of fries. Suffering from angina in the 1970's, she gave the nuns quite a scare one night. Her lips and fingernails had begun turning blue and no pulse could be found as she lay in the infirmary. All were preparing for a peaceful end, but still the nurse put a nitroglycerin tablet under Sister's tongue. A few hours later, Sister revived, sat up perkily in bed and sent the praying nuns at her "deathbed" off to their rooms declaring "Sorry— no funeral yet !"
When the end came at last, it would be on April 1, 1984, on the 95th anniversary of her birth. She passed away on an April Sunday, spared by God's grace from another April Sunday long before in 1912. In the liturgical calendar, it was also Laetare Sunday, which is a day of rejoicing in Lent, just before Easter, when the dark purple of Lent, the fasting and penitence associated with the season is put aside in favor of pink vestments and hangings at the altar- pink like the roses in Sister's cheeks. She often made a joke of being born on April Fool's Day- "Fool that I am," she would smile and add.
Seventeen months later the Titanic would be found. What would Sister have said to that? She was laid to rest in the Sisters' plot of St. Joseph's Cemetery in Leicester after a Mass in the Chapel of the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse on Barry Road. Among her small trove of possessions was her favorite little prayer book, well thumbed, -a gift from her long ago mother in Ireland. It opened automatically to the prayer she offered daily- the Litany of Humility. "Just say this," a friend said of Sister Patricia, "a saint has gone to God."
Special thanks to the Sisters of Mercy at Worcester who graciously granted the interviews on which this article was based, especially Sister Angela Perry, historian and archivist , and in the Hartsdale, N.Y. Regional Community, archivist, Sister Ellen Marie Robarge. Photograph courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy.
© Shelley Dziedzic 2004
Images courtesy of the author