Students and staff at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic School in Wasilla lost a very old friend on Dec. 9. Francis Banish, age 102, was a member of Sacred Heart Church and a resident of Primrose Retirement Home in Wasilla.
Despite living through nine popes and experiencing more than a century of sacraments, Banish remained very much engaged with her spiritual journey right up until her death.
She moved to Alaska about 10 years ago following the death of her husband and older sister. Her years at Primrose left an impact on local Catholic students. Banish had long prioritized daily Mass, a practice she picked up from her parents as a child. While she had to be content with weekly liturgies at Primrose, daily Mass was a staple for many decades.
Growing up in Flushing, New York, with two older sisters, she benefited from devout Catholic parents. Her mother was born in Pennsylvania and her father in Ireland. Her father attended daily Mass before work and her mother attended daily Mass after dropping the children off at school. As far as attending regular Mass, Banish didn’t see that as particularly laudable.
“I can still walk,” she said with a laugh during a 2018 interview with the Catholic Anchor. ”There’s only one God; worship him while you can.”
While attending the weekly Thursday Mass offered at Primrose, Banish also requested to go to Sacred Heart whenever possible. There she prayed and interacted with students from Our Lady of the Valley School. The students are heavily involved in the Friday Mass and other liturgies at the parish.
With Primrose and Sacred Heart arranging transportation, Banish attended the Nov. 1 All Saints Day Mass in which the students dressed as saints. The children prepared displays about their saints and shared information with parishioners. Banish expressed pleasure at seeing all the research the children had done.
The next time she was able to attend Sacred Heart was the Dec. 7 Mass on the vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This would be the final Mass of her life. The female students and staff all wore blue veils in honor of Mother Mary. Banish sang all of the songs with the choir from memory and afterwards commented about the absolutely beautiful service. Two students were her escorts from the time she arrived at the church until she left.
The children recall Banish saying “Goodbye children” as she boarded the bus. This was to be her final farewell to the children of Our Lady of the Valley. She died two days later.
Students from the middle school class participated in a Dec. 20 memorial Mass for Banish. The liturgy took place at Primrose and was concelebrated by Father Joseph McGilloway and Father Michael Ko of Sacred Heart. Since Banish was a lay member of the Third Order Franciscans, Father McGilloway celebrated the Mass using his chalice and paten from Assisi, Italy, home of Banish’s patron saint.
Students contributed by singing familiar farewell hymns.