COIMBRA, Portugal — On the morning of her Feb. 13 death, Sister Lucia struggled to read a letter from Pope John Paul II, who sent words of comfort.

The 97-year-old woman, who was one of three children to whom Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917, died surrounded by her Carmelite Sisters in the Santa Teresa Cloister in Coimbra, Portugal.

In the Pope’s letter, he said that he was praying that the nun, whose religious name is Sister Lucia of Jesus of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, would  “meritoriously overcome the moment of trial, united to Christ the Redeemer and illuminated by his Resurrection.”

Sister Lucia’s doctor, Branca Paul, said later that day Sister Lucia died peacefully without suffering, “like a candle going out.”

During his homily at Sister Lucia’s funeral Mass on Feb. 15 in the Cathedral in Coimbra, Cardinal Jose Policarp, the Patriarch of Portugal, said he was stunned by the sudden wave of messages from well-wishers worldwide following the nun’s death.

Word of Sister Lucia’s demise spread throughout the globe in a matter of hours, by phone, Internet and newswire.

In the words of Cardinal Policarp, “Her death marks a frontier. From this moment on, Fatima is a great message, a spiritual tradition that will be passed down from generation to generation of pilgrims, penitents and prayerful people who, above all else, take the simple message seriously.”

How could one woman impact so many lives?

Father Robert J. Fox, author of numerous books about Fatima, including The Intimate Life of Sister Lucia, spelled out how great her achievement was.

“Never before in the 2,000-year history of the Church has a humble nun with only a few years of formal primary education ever been given such a challenge as has Sister Lucia,” he said. “She was given a mission involving the bishops of the world, the pope, governments, nations. Her mission concerned the future of the church and the future of the world, and she carried out her mission admirably.”

A Mission

Born in 1907 in Ajustrel, a small village on the outskirts of Fatima, Lucia dos Santos, along with two cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, were visited by “a beautiful lady” for six months from May to October in 1917. Each apparition, except the one in August, occurred on the 13th of the month.

During these apparitions, they reported that Mary asked for the daily recitation of the rosary, acts of penance and prayers for the conversion of sinners.  The lady requested that people pray for the conversion of Russia, and she asked that a church be built on the spot of her apparition.

Lucia was the only one of the three shepherd children who heard the voice of Our Lady, and she was the only one who spoke with her during the encounters. 

For that reason, Msgr. Luciano Guerra, rector of the Fatima Sanctuary, in a statement released shortly after Sister Lucia’s death, highlighted her singular role.

“Sister Lucia is considered the principal figure of the apparitions of Fatima,” he said, “not only because she lived longer than her cousins Francisco and Jacinta, but because during the apparitions she, at 10 years old, was the elder of the three shepherds and the principal messenger of Our Lady. She had a primary role during the apparitions: She was the one who led the group, the one who talked with Our Lady.”

A message sent from the Holy Father for the funeral of Sister Lucia also singled out Lucia’s mission.

“The visit of the Virgin Mary, which little Lucia received in Fatima together with her cousins Francisco and Jacinta in 1917,” he said, “was for her the beginning of a singular mission to which she remained faithful until the end of her days.”

That singular mission was made known to the young Lucia on June 13, 1917, when she asked Our Lady to take her and her two cousins to heaven. Our Lady responded, “Yes, I will bring Jacinta and Francisco soon. But you must stay here a while longer.  Jesus wants you to make me known and loved. He desires to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”

As Our Lady predicted, Francisco died in 1919 and Jacinta died in 1920, leaving Lucia the sole surviving messenger

To escape the crowds in Fatima, in 1921, Lucia become a boarder in the School of the Sisters of St. Dorothy in Vilar, on the outskirts of the city of Porto.  Four years later, on Oct. 24, 1925, she was admitted as a postulant in the Institute of the Sisters of St. Dorothy and was sent to a convent in Tuy, Spain, near the Portuguese border. There, she had a vision of the Holy Trinity.

Lucia made her perpetual vows as a Dorothean on Oct. 3, 1934, receiving the name Sister Mary of the Sorrowful Mother.

Feeling a strong calling to the Carmelites, 14 years later on March 25, 1948, she transferred to the Carmel of Santa Teresa in Coimbra, Portugal, where she made her profession as a Discalced Carmelite on May 31, 1949, taking the name Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart. She remained in the solitude of the cloister for the rest of her life, leaving only on rare occasions.

Sister Lucia witnessed the beatification of her two cousins on May 13, 2000, and at that time visited the tombs of Blesseds Francisco and Jacinta in the apse of the Fatima Basilica. 

She saw her own tomb then. It lay empty beside Jacinta’s.

Sister Lucia’s body will eventually be moved from the Carmel of Santa Teresa to that Fatima Basilica tomb.

During her lifetime, Sister Lucia wrote five memoirs, which explain the Fatima apparitions. More recently, her book on the Fatima message was published by the Secretariat for the Shepherd Children in Fatima in 2000.

Dr. Luciano Cristino, the official Fatima archivist, announced in a recent press conference that another volume of Lucia’s memoirs will be published in May, filled with letters Sister Lucia wrote to her mother and father after 1921.

Father Luis Kondor, the vice postulator who worked tirelessly for the canonization cause of Francisco and Jacinta stated that the process toward Sister Lucia’s beatification is expected to follow the normal process. That is, five years must pass after her death before the procedure begins. 

However, Father Kondor added that Pope John Paul could dispense with this step as he did with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

While the people of God wait for the Church’s canonization process to begin, they can find comfort in the words of Cardinal Policarp, “We are deeply moved, not so much because she died, but because today, between Fatima and heaven, a new bridge has been built.”

Mary Ann Sullivan is based

 in New Durham, New Hampshire.