“Since we all must die, we should cherish a special devotion to St. Joseph that he may obtain for us a happy death.” -St. Alphonsus Liguori
Amid the pain and sense of loss I feel over the death of my 96-year-old mother, Margaret Sarah Wikoff, on Saturday, May 8, 2021, I believe she was blessed with a happy death. Her devotion to St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death, appeared to be present with mom in her last days to lead her home to heaven. To understand the concept of a happy death, let me provide a brief portrait of my mother's life of faith as a beloved daughter of God.
My mother was born on February 4, 1925, in Peoria and baptized a Catholic at St. Mary’s Cathedral on March 1, 1925. She told me once that she believed she was born in the best of times despite the Great Depression and the poverty of her family. When I asked her why she felt that way, she said it was a simpler time when everyone had to work together to survive. That brought her family together and there was more appreciation for things like a stable home life, a special meal at Christmas and a Catholic school education.
My mother attended St. Joseph School on Peoria’s southside through the eighth grade. She left school after ninth grade to get a job to help her family make ends meet. She worked at Caterpillar during the 2nd World War as a cashier in the cafeteria. She loved the job but left it to become a wife and mother.
She married her first husband, Virgil Mahieu at St. Joseph Church on September 18, 1945. Virgil survived the World War but was killed in a hunting accident a year later when mom was four months pregnant with my oldest sister, Virginia. She said she was grateful to God that with the birth of her daughter, she always had something of Virgil with her. She married my father, John Wikoff, at St. Boniface Church in Peoria on February 18, 1950. She and my father had 10 more children. My dad died at the age of 56 in 1980.
Despite the terrible loss of her husbands, my mother never lost faith in God’s goodness. One of her main goals with my father was to sacrifice so that all eleven children would attend Catholic grade and high school and graduate. She believed that the Catholic school provided a good education and moral training to enhance what she and my father supplied with their love and discipline in our home. There were many challenges along the way, but she succeeded in that goal and was so proud of that accomplishment.
Her faith in God was sustained by reaching out to her favorite saints throughout her life. Because of the Franciscans at St. Boniface Parish on the southside, she loved St. Anthony. She prayed often for his help in finding lost articles and I’m sure she also asked for his intercession to help her children find their way when they were confused or troubled and needed positive direction.
It was the “Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, that defined her way of living her Catholic faith day by day. She often told us that as a mother who stayed home with her children, she could not do great things for God, but she could do little things every day that would please him and make someone else's life better.
Mom was also devoted to the Holy Family. Mary was her model of motherhood and she often sought her guidance through prayer and conversation. Family members knew her as a powerful intercessor with St. Joseph, especially when she prayed to him for her children to find suitable work to support their families, or for a grandchild to succeed in their job interview.
In her last days on earth, mom doubled down on her prayers. My siblings and I spent time with her in her last weeks and we noticed that mom would say that she wanted to do the right thing and hoped that her life was pleasing to God. One of her final prayers which she said over and over again was the Hail Mary. She was striving to do the right thing to gain heaven.
On Saturday, May 8, mom was surrounded by her children and many of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Around 10:15 am, Fr. Jeremy Freehill, her pastor at St. Ann Parish arrived at my sister’s home, where mom was staying, to administer the Last Rites of the Church to prepare mom for her transition to the next life. Fr. Jeremy led us in praying the Divine Mercy chaplet and then anointed mom and gave her absolution. Just before 3:00 pm, while my sisters were keeping vigil, mom slipped peacefully away to eternity.
What is it that makes for a happy death? In the case of my mother, it included a lifelong devotion to St. Joseph and his spouse, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was her Catholic faith, her love of God and the selfless love of her family that prepared her for a happy and peaceful death. I give thanks to God for her example of a faith-filled life. May we live in such harmony with God that we are blessed and graced with a happy and peaceful death!
“I hope we all remember her childlikeness. Her way of trust and confidence in God the Father. Her doing little things with great love. And seek to acquire like Marge that same superior wisdom and knowledge from Christ himself.“ -Fr. Jeremy Freehill, funeral homily