May 17, 2013 at 1:00 am

St. Clair Shores nun confronting death inspires others to seize the day

Confronting death, she inspires others to seize the day

Sister Carol: Going out with style
Sister Carol: Going out with style: Sister Carol Juhasz has inflammatory breast cancer. Doctors give her only six months to live, but she's knocking off items on her bucket list and living every day like its her first, last and only.

St. Clair Shores — Not everyone plans a wardrobe change for their funeral.

And not everyone models said wardrobe by lying on a bed with eyes closed and mouth open.

But it isn't just anyone whose approach to death is nothing short of remarkable, friends say.

Sister Carol Juhasz, 63, a pastoral associate at St. Joan of Arc in St. Clair Shores, was stricken with breast cancer and given six months to live in March.

Instead of keeping this most private of tribulations to herself, the irrepressible, dare say, irreverent nun has gone public with her disease. She writes a blog, shows off her bald noggin and invites people to ask about her impending death.

By sharing her final months with church members, she wants them to feel more comfortable with their own mortality. She is teaching them how to die.

And, if they have a few chuckles before the great beyond, that's OK, too.

"Cancer can't take your spirit or love or friendship," Juhasz said. "Cancer is not in control. I'm going on my terms."

Her church, one of the largest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, has rallied around the popular sister.

The members have thrown parties, swamped her with thousands of cards and donated money and gifts to a bucket list — zip lining, riding a fire truck, gambling in Vegas, flying in a two-seat plane — that grows by the day.

They say Juhasz has turned a curse into a blessing, a death into an affirmation of life.

When Susie Thibault was diagnosed with breast cancer and began chemotherapy, Juhasz convinced her they both should shave their heads, but not before sporting Mohawks, to the delight of Thibault's two young daughters.

The 40-year-old woman said Juhasz inspires her and her family.

"Thank you for all that you taught me," she wrote in a note. "To be strong, to have faith, to be positive, to keep laughing, and to know that it is in God's hands."

A journey of joy

It's fitting Juhasz is showing church members how to die. Since arriving at the parish in 1998, she has shown them how to live.

She is an eternal dispenser of hugs, an inveterate sender of cards, an Our Lady of Perpetual Smiles.

The congregation describes her as a fun aunt, a Red Wings fanatic, a born empathizer with the God-given ability to relate to everyone from children to seniors.

Six scrapbooks assembled by members show her in various guises: wearing monkey slippers, sitting on Santa's lap, dressed as a friar for Halloween with a painted beard, and hugging a girl after her first communion.

"I have a wonderful life and ministry I love," she said. "What more can you ask for?"

Also, she wants the world to know: She ain't dead yet. This Easter candle still has some burning to do.

After receiving her prognosis in March, she marked the next 180 days on her calendar, counting backward from 180. Each day she crosses off one more, showing how many she has left.

Juhasz lives by the monsignor's adage at funerals: Live every day like it's your first, last and only.

She calls this death march a journey of joy.

"Each day your feet hit the floor is a gift," she said.

When four friends took the Monroe native to New York last month, another woman couldn't make the trip so Juhasz attached a photo of the missing woman to a rubber doll and took pictures of it all over the city.

The friends laughed at all the wacky poses until they reached St. Patrick's Cathedral and Juhasz dunked the doll in the baptismal font. Worried they would get in trouble, the friends skittered away.

"Just being around her makes you feel good," said one of the fellow travelers, Mary Kuznia, 52, a nurse at the church and Beaumont Hospital. "She is the warmest, nicest, friendliest, happiest person I know.

"She was given a death sentence and is laughing about it."

'I've never felt closer to Him'

Juhasz's cancer had been in remission for eight years before she learned of its return last year on Good Friday.

Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery failed to tame the beast and a biopsy in March revealed she has inflammatory breast cancer, she said.

Only 1 percent to 5 percent of women get that type of cancer, which is incurable and fast growing.

An estimated 39,510 women died from breast cancer in the United States in 2012, including 1,350 from Michigan, according to the American Cancer Society.

The cancer leaves Juhasz easily tired. She was hospitalized several times last year for nausea.

"Look out," she wrote on her blog after one hospital stay. "Sister Baldy will be back."

Despite her humor, this business of letting go can be emotional, Juhasz allowed. The thought of not seeing her three siblings or the other sisters at the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent in Monroe makes her sad.

She also worries what the cancer will feel like as it advances.

She's hoping for a miracle cure but it's OK if God has other plans.

"I was dealt not a great hand but I can make the best of it," she said. "It's on God's time. You trust that He knows best."

One reason for her serenity is she knows she won't be traveling alone.

"God's in the boat with me," she said. "I've never felt closer to Him."

An example for others

During a party for Juhasz last month at the parish center, she chatted and posed for photos with well-wishers for two hours.

Sitting on a wooden chair she called her throne, a balloon floated above her reading "It's All About You."

But it's never been about Sister Carol. Since becoming a nun at age 33, she has done nothing but serve others.

Not even her death is about her, church leaders said. By sharing it with the congregation, she has turned it into a testament to faith.

"She has taken everything we are taught and is living it," said Monsignor Mike Bugarin, 48, pastor of St. Joan of Arc. "In a beautiful way, she has turned suffering into something redemptive."

She has begun giving away her possessions and plans to write letters to people who have touched her life the most.

A veteran at planning funerals for church members, she now plots her own. She said it will include this Biblical verse from 2 Timothy 4:7:

"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."

Showered with love

Juhasz wrote in her Caring Bridge blog she tries to make at least one person a day feel better, beginning with the smallest gestures — smiling, listening, holding the door for them.

A reader scolded the nun. One person? "What are you talking about," asked the reader. "You make hundreds of people feel better every day."

All those people are finally getting a chance to return the favor. They've inundated Juhasz with offers of help. They cook meals, wash laundry and offer to drive her wherever she wants to go.

They've bought her tickets for Tigers' opening day, Wings' playoff games and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

"I was always thankful our children got to spend quality time with a nun so full of love, so full of fun, so full of grace," said Marion Magdalene Krymski, 56, a teacher at St. Joan of Arc.

Students send Juhasz a steady stream of poems and prayers. They tell her she is as sweet as "cloud cupcakes," that they would give her their last Chicken McNugget, that seeing her at church is like spotting a favorite candy bar at the store.

"All you need is love, but a little laughter now and then doesn't hurt," seventh-graders in Room 22 wrote in a card they all signed.

During a party at the school last month, the bald nun disappeared into a crowd of 500 students gathered on the steps of the gym waving pink pompoms and wearing pink shirts over their school uniforms.

She engulfed several girls in a hug with several more joining every few seconds until 20 students were in the circle, a growing pink bundle of love.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Sister Carol Juhasz of St. Joan of Arc in St. Clair Shores was told by doctors in March she has six months to live. / Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News
Nurse Nancy Tiseo helps treat Juhasz for breast cancer at the Van ...
Different bands on her wrists remind Juhasz to stay strong as she battles ...