Pregnant mother of four remembered as ‘woman of grace and power’

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Amid the tears and quiet hugs at the start of the funeral Mass for Sarah Marie Harkins, 32 - a mother of four who died July 28 from a ruptured brain aneurysm - the coos and cries of babies rang out. The sound of life and the celebration of it were central to the Aug. 1 liturgy for Harkins, who was 21-weeks pregnant with her fifth child, Cecilia Rachel, who also died.

The parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg was remembered as a woman whose soul was filled to the brim with love for God, and that loved rippled outward to all she encountered.

Every pew was filled at the funeral Mass, held at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception and officiated by Father Paul G. Holthaus, a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese and a great-uncle of Harkins' husband. Msgr. James Shea and his brother, Father Robert Shea, and Father Ben Kociemba - all friends of the Harkins - concelebrated with Father Keith D. Cummings, St. Mary parochial vicar, who served as homilist.

The world tells us, said Father Cummings in his homily, that "to be a successful woman you need to have a good job; you need to have it all. You need to define yourself."

"Sarah didn't believe that," he said. "She didn't care what the world had to say about her, because she was called by her God who loved her."

Father Cummings said that in her short life Harkins had many titles.

"She was a sister who was beloved," he said. She was a daughter who was cherished. She was a mother to her children, "and she delighted in them."

"And she was Eric's wife, and she brought joy to him," he said. "But above and beyond all this, she was a child of God. And she knew it."

Because God dwelt in the heart that touched so many, her absence creates a sense of emptiness, said Father Cummings. While we struggle to understand her death, we know that God Himself gave His only Son first so that we may have life forever.

"He has taken her back - not forever, but for a time," he said. "Her life has not ended; it is transformed."

Harkins collapsed from wasp stings she received after a nest was disturbed in the backyard of the family's Spotsylvania County home. Her husband performed CPR after calling 911. Medics were able to revive her, but doctors said the stress of the incident ruptured a brain aneurysm. Doctors said she was brain dead and would not survive. Her family then decided to take Harkins off life support.

Born in Greenwald, Minn., Aug. 2, 1981, to James Schulzetenberg, a permanent deacon, and Bonnie Schulzetenberg, Harkins graduated from Melrose High School in Minnesota. She earned a degree in elementary education in 2004 from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she met Eric on a mission trip. The couple married in 2005.

Harkins home-schooled the couple's children and created a Montessori-style preschool program for the local home-schooling co-op.

"Sarah made a mark on everybody she met," said Kathleen Wilson, co-founder and executive director of Mary's Shelter. Harkins had volunteered at the shelters for homeless pregnant women in Fredericksburg for years - mentoring, teaching classes and donating her handmade rosaries to shelter fundraisers.

"She was one of those women that was so beautiful but so approachable and natural," Wilson said. "She didn't have to wear her faith and love for her children on her sleeve; you just knew it."

Wilson's two youngest children attended preschool co-op, and she remembers Harkins reciting psalms each morning and gently helping the preschoolers learn the prayers of praise by heart.

Her faith emanated from her, said Wilson.

Harkins recently started a women's Bible study for home-schooling mothers at St. Mary and she ran a home business designing clay rosaries and jewelry, which sold worldwide.

"When Sarah committed to something she gave it her all - be it her faith, rosaries, home-schooling," Wilson said.

"She was such a passionate person, very driven," added Father Kociemba, who went to high school with Harkins. "And she directed that passion, all that energy, toward Christ."

Harkins also had a sharp intellect, said Loura Turner, a fellow home-schooler, and she used it in service to her vocation as a wife, mother and home-educator.

Turner said that as Harkins nurtured the spiritual and academic growth of her children, she nurtured their health through a commitment to natural foods.

She preserved cabbage and made her own toothpaste, according to one of two websites set up to raise funds for expenses related to her death and to the care of her four children: Liam, 7; Analee, 5; Jude, 3; and Mary Faustina, 1, who has Down syndrome.

Countless prayers and an outpouring of support for Harkins and her family are a testament to how deeply she was loved.

Within four days of her death, nearly $172,000 was raised. More than 1,500 comments on the Steubenville Facebook page gave promises of novenas and rosaries and offered words of sympathy.

"Praying for Eric and the children," says one Facebook post. "God envelope him and his precious little ones in Your arms. We send our love and prayers."

Parveen Kelly, a midwife for Harkins, said that she was a private but strong person because of her faith. She "was a woman of few words, but her actions spoke volumes," said Kelly. "She was a woman of grace and power."

Mary's Shelter will dedicate its fifth home to Harkins and her unborn daughter. Each house bears the name of someone dear to the shelter. The newest one is set to open on the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, and it will be named "The Sarah and Cecilia Harkins Home."

It's a way to honor her and her commitment to life, said Wilson. "Sarah was beautiful inside and out."

How to help

To assist with expenses related to Sarah Harkins' death and the care of her four children, go to gofundme.com or youcaring.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014