02/08/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

Life and Legacy of Sister Elizabeth Candon

When young Hamlet vented his anger against Ophelia, he shouted, "Get thee to a nunnery!" That was what had happened to young women when they were spurned by lovers -- their only recourse was to be condemned to a cloistered life.

Not so for Sister Elizabeth Candon. For 74 years, she happily served as a Sister of Mercy, living a life that was far from cloistered.

She had entered into the convent during one period, when sisters still had male saints' names, and emerged in another -- when quite suddenly, sisters shed both their habits of clothing and their habits of living. Few made the transition into the modern world more dramatically than Sister Elizabeth when she became a public citizen.

I first met her when I was in my thirties, had recently received my Masters' degree in English literature from the University of Vermont, and given birth to my fourth child. I was ready to step back into the world myself -- tentatively.

Sister Elizabeth hired me to be a part-time instructor at Trinity College -- I was thrilled, not knowing I would be up half the night correcting 150 English papers.

I remember the tragic day of Kent State, May 4, 1970, when the National Guard fired on unarmed anti-Vietnam student protesters -- and four were killed. I went to her office to ask that we cancel classes and have a teach-in. Without a moment's hesitation she said yes.

How did this devout woman,who began her education in a Vermont one-room school house and received a PhD in her favorite subjects -- Shakespeare and Chaucer -- become such a beloved figure?

For one thing, she gave herself the freedom to say what she believed to be true, whether it pleased the Catholic Bishop or not. For another, she did not wait for her journey to heaven to translate the word of God into action here on earth. When she was appointed Secretary of the Agency of Human Services by former Republican governor Richard Snelling, she seized the opportunity to serve the neediest of Vermont's citizens -- not by prayer alone.

She was not your usual rebel -- pushing the envelope against established institutions. She might not have marched with the 99 percent Occupy Wall Street crowd, but in her heart, she was 100 percent with them.

Her words were never harsh, her voice never loud, her presence not large. But the aura that glowed around her was huge and powerful. She delighted others with her sparkling Irish humor, even as she lay on her death bed, which did not seem like a death bed at all. She had her visitors laughing with her at her string of hilarious observations; the oxygen tube that helped her breathe could not restrain her.

More than anyone I had ever known, Sister Elizabeth was ready for death. She knew she had lived a full and happy life; and in the process, she enabled countless others to live a better life too.