Rev. Dr. Michele Birch-Conery, bishop arcwp: She Rises Again by Rev. Dr. Barbara Billey, Heart of Compassion Faith Community, Windsor, ON, Canada
Michele Birch-Conery, bishop arcwp
Hers is a story of biblical proportion. After two years of roller coaster health crises and rebound recoveries, Michele Birch-Conery, bishop arcwp escapes near death once again. This time the trajectory of her resurrection is much different both on the physical and spiritual plane.
Michele was admitted to a long-term care facility in December 2019. The decision was made on an emergency basis, a choice between hospice and long-term care. Michele's health had significantly deteriorated after a recurrence in August 2018 of a childhood genetic condition called cyclic vomiting syndrome. The pain that accompanies such a condition is dire and often lasts for five days. Michele had to be hospitalized for dehydration and electrolyte imbalances several times since then. Nonetheless, she continued to serve in her capacity as a bishop with arcwp, sometimes teaching us how to pastor and to collaborate on her behalf through her physical challenges. The justice work of advocating for an elder as her power of attorney from the "outside" was another learning curve for me.
By the fall of 2019, Michele's health was severely compromised. She wanted to die but was not convinced (nor her medical team) that this would happen in the mandated time frame of three months. On admission to long-term care, neither Michele, nor any of us, in the Heart of Compassion Faith Community (HOCFC) had anticipated the coming of the covid-19 pandemic.
Initially, our visits and her outings with us made the harsh realities of living in long-term care doable for Michele until persistent lockdowns and isolation from residents became the norm starting in March 2020; her lack of freedom was exacerbated by hearing loss and inability to see. How does one navigate a world where the sound of caregivers is muffled in a mouth trap mask and the barrier of plastic shields? Not to mention that eighty percent of residents with whom Michele lived had advanced dementia or other physical disabilities that made communication challenging.
In her usual easy-going manner, Michele used these early months as an opportunity to hone her contemplative prayer life and to work on her memoir by phone with me, until spring turned to summer and the hopes of the pandemic ending were nowhere in sight.
An ordained person wherever we go, Michele recounted to me by phone one morning that Harvey, a resident she had befriended had died. She had been matched at meals with Harvey, who apparently talked the entire time while she listened intently. Michele told me that at the end of every meal, unaware of Covid -19 restrictions about touch, she and Harvey shook hands. They had become friends over the past three weeks. On the morning of Harvey's death and before his body was taken away, Michele slipped into his room and gave him a blessing.
In early July, I could feel in Michele's voice that her spirit was waning. I asked, "What's important to you now?" "I spend every part of my day trying not to go insane," Michele replied. The social isolation was dreadful for her. I felt my heart sink with sorrow and knew that we had to get her out of there. Michele was more than willing.
And we did. Rhea, an eighty-two year old mother of six adult children, retired psychiatric nurse and member of HOCFC enthusiastically agreed to have Michele live with her. "It's the right thing to do," remarked Rhea. Other members of our faith community were overjoyed that Michele would be released. We all had missed her deeply. They agreed to help with food preparation, visits, appointments and the move. I secured community health support services and a wonderful medical doctor. Our arcwp priests from Michigan, Jeni Marcus and Karen Kerrigan offered our zoom celebrations, prayers and moral support.
On the occasion of our priestly ordination anniversary celebrations on July 25th (near the Feast of Mary Magdalene) - Michele's 15th and my 5th - about thirty people from all over the world joined on Zoom with our faith community for our Word Wisdom Communion gathering to renew our commitments and to reflect on the many graces Sacred Presence has bestowed up on us. From her room at the long-term care facility, Michele offers us this wisdom.
"When I think of all of you doing studies about Mary Magdalene, nothing should be more relevant to our times. I think of Mary Magdalene teaching the apostles about what Jesus shared privately with her, as well as preparing them to continue their vocation as teachers of His Way. She is a woman of our times. If there is any one person significant to those of us ordained as Roman Catholic women priests it is Mary Magdalene. I suggest she be named the patron saint of our movement. I see Mary Magdalene as someone who always maintains the peace, while being quietly vigilant about the needs of her companions and of the people of God. She was disappeared as have been many women of the Church. In her reappearance through contemporary feminist theologians and authors, her significant brings us hope for the future of women in the Church."
On July 30th, Michele burst through the doors of the long-term care facility wearing a hot pink blazer and pushing her wheeled-walker. This was the first time outside of the building in six months. We happily travelled the twenty minutes to Rhea's apartment on the river where Michele would now live. Like the story in John's Gospel of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44), our Michele - wisdom elder, bishop and spiritual mentor - was returned to us and to herself.