Father Bill Schmidt, the pastor at St. Mary’s in Wrentham, got the call a week ago. There was an 85-year-old woman at the Wrentham Developmental Center, the old Wrentham State School, and she didn’t have long.
Father Bill was led to her bedside. Her name was June Larner, and she was in and out of consciousness. Father Bill spoke to her softly, soothingly. He told her that God loved her. He anointed her, making the sign of the cross, and told her that God was ready to call her home.
When he finished his priestly duties, Father Bill stepped away and talked with some of the staff members, who stood in a clot, concerned.
“Does she have family?” Father Bill asked.
She did, he was told, but they were all gone.
And then Father Bill heard the whole story.
When June Larner was 8 years old, her father brought her to the old Wrentham State School. He didn’t know what was wrong with his daughter, only that he and his wife couldn’t take care of her.
“She was developmentally delayed,” Father Bill said. “Today, it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal. There would be services. But, back then, apparently, it was too overwhelming for them.”
June Larner arrived at the state hospital in 1935.
She never left. But her family did.
In the first years, her parents visited her every week. Then every month. Then it was once in a while. And then, after 1972, it was never.
As her family’s visits dwindled, June became depressed. Initially, the medications didn’t work, but once she was properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her treatment became more effective and she rebounded. She loved leaving the hospital on day trips to shop and eat in and around Wrentham.
A cousin who lived nearby became her guardian, but she and her husband died years ago and then June Larner was alone.
Except she wasn’t. Because the staff in Wrentham became her family.
When she was a girl, June loved to fold laundry with the staff ladies, and they praised her and told her she was terrific.
June gave hugs to the staff members she liked best, and they hugged her back.
The doctors and the nurses and the therapists and the aides called her June Bug, and she loved that.
Even at the end, when dementia began to take over, June Bug kissed the staff. And they kissed her back.
They say a Mass at the hospital on Saturdays and June was always there. The liturgy was something she recognized, the words, the rhythm, a familiar balm.
“It was a hidden life,” Father Bill said at June Larner’s funeral Mass Thursday, as 100 people gathered in the auditorium of the old state hospital to say goodbye. “But it was a life that mattered.”
Father Bill looked at the assembled crowd. A lot of the older residents were in wheelchairs. The staff stood among them.
Father Bill said that looking after the most vulnerable among us is the highest calling.
He was talking about caregivers who are more valued by God than man. And if you need evidence of that, look at their paychecks.
“In the 78 years June was here,” Father Bill said, “she had people who cared for her. Who loved her. Who were with her to the end.”
It was a small cortege that drove to Center Cemetery. But the nurses and aides and staff from the Wrentham Developmental Center made the trek because they were going to be with June Bug until the very end.
Father Bill sprinkled holy water and empathy over the casket.
“She was born in November, one of the darkest months of the year,” he said. “But her name was June, the month with the greatest light. And she managed, in her own way, to bring light to others.”