Published April 20, 2017
HUNTINGDON VALLEY, Pa.—Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart Sister Frances C. Whitman, who served in the Atlanta Archdiocese for decades in Tribunal work and Catholic education, died March 18 at the age of 90. She was in her 53rd year of religious life as a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart.
Born in Atlanta on Feb. 1, 1927, Sister Frances was the daughter of Hollis and Rose Whitman, and the baby sister to twin siblings 19 years older than she. She was educated in the tradition of the Grey Nuns at Christ the King School and Christ the King High School in Atlanta, enrolling the first year the school was opened and graduating in 1945.
Following high school, Sister Frances attended one year of college and then because of expenses left to attend business school and begin work in the business world, including more than a decade at architectural firms.
According to the remembrance of Sister Karen Marie Voltz, GNSH, at the funeral liturgy, Sister Frances was profoundly affected by the 1962 charter plane crash in France, which took the lives of over 100 civic and cultural leaders from the Atlanta area who went to tour art museums. She had been unable to go on the trip because she had started a new job.
Sister Karen Marie said the tragedy led Sister Frances to enter the Grey Nuns two years later at the age of 37, an age which at that time required a dispensation. She professed her vows as a Grey Nun in 1967 and was sent to teach at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Atlanta. After teaching for three years, she was sent to Georgia State University for a master’s degree in elementary education administration. She then served as principal of IHM for six years.
However, she did not feel that she was cut out to be a principal and began to consider other directions in ministry. While studying gerontology, she also found a part-time job at the Marriage Tribunal of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
In 1977 Msgr. Edward J. Dillon, who headed the Tribunal, asked her if she would consider full-time work there. To prepare, she attended summer institutes in canon law in Washington, D.C. She then began to serve in the Tribunal, where she remained for 28 years until she retired in 2004.
Msgr. Dillon said that Sister Frances’ principal role was as an advocate for people presenting marriage cases. He said, “Those are people who have gone through a divorce and want to get married in the church, so there tends to be a lot of emotional pain with many of them and a great deal of uncertainty for their future home in the church.”
Her gift for relating to other people well and for balancing the compassion needed at a time of great pain as people were experiencing the end of a marriage with the search for truth in an annulment process made her a skilled and invaluable member of the Tribunal staff.
Msgr. Dillon said, “Sister was always kind and pastoral with them—she was the face of the church to them and I’m quite confident many of them would not be in the Catholic Church today without her presence.”
Sister Frances and Msgr. Stephen Churchwell overlapped at the Tribunal. “She was invariably even-tempered, not only with the people at the Tribunal, but the people she worked with,” said Msgr. Stephen Churchwell.
He recalled that Sister Frances treated people with respect and kept people informed when cases were not resolved as quickly as people wanted.
Before the 1970s, service in the Tribunal would have been reserved for priests, Msgr. Churchwell said. Sister Frances would have been one of the early sisters to do this type of ministry, he said.
Her Southern grace and humor were qualities many in her family and religious community treasured.
For about 25 years Sister Frances lived in community with Sister Pierrette Remillard, GNSH, in Atlanta. She fostered centering prayer in her own life and that of others after attending a workshop in Atlanta and becoming part of a weekly prayer group. When she and Sister Pierrette moved to the Grey Nuns’ motherhouse in Yardley, Pennsylvania, she organized a group of women to gather weekly for centering prayer.
The Liturgy of Christian Burial was celebrated on March 25 at Holy Redeemer Sisters Chapel in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. Interment was in Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart either online at greynun.org or mailed to the congregation at 14500 Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19116-1188.