Baby daughter Eviegrace Willis baptised at funeral of late mum Samantha; Fr. Joe Clifford on untimely death - 'It is out of order and doesn't make sense'

Eviegrace Willis was baptised at the Funeral Mass of her late mother Samantha at St. Columb’s Church this morning.

By Kevin Mullan
Monday, 23rd August 2021, 5:43 pm
Samantha Willis’ husband Josh Willis(front right) and her father Lawrence Moore (front left) help carry her coffin after the funeral service at Saint Columbs Church in Derry.   Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Samantha Willis’ husband Josh Willis(front right) and her father Lawrence Moore (front left) help carry her coffin after the funeral service at Saint Columbs Church in Derry. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The Strathfoyle mother-of-four and care worker died with COVID-19 at the age of just 35 in Altnagelvin Hospital early on Friday morning.

Samantha passed away just days after the birth of her new baby daughter. She is survived by her husband Josh, Eviegrace and her three other children Shéa, Holly and Lilyanna.

Fr. Joe Clifford, Josh’s uncle, travelled from the US, to preside over the saddest of ceremonies at Chapel Road.

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The late Samantha Willis

“I have never done this before. I have never done a baptism at a funeral but it speaks to us about the two book ends of life.

“A funeral is for the end and a baptism is for the beginning and we are doing both on the same day, somehow or other, contextualising every single thing in between, and maybe even waking us up to know how fragile life is,” Fr. Joe observed, during his homily.

As Samantha’s coffin was borne into the chapel, Ronan Keating’s love song ‘This I Promise You’ was played.

Mourners followed her husband and children, her parents Mary and Lawrence Moore, and her siblings Mark, Danielle, Ryan and Adam into the church.

Samantha Willis' coffin being carried at her funeral today.

Fr. Joe, who married Samantha and Josh in the same church just two-and-a-half years ago, spoke of the ‘deep sadness that’s wounded your hearts and broken you’ following her untimely death.

He spoke of how senseless her tragic passing must seem.

“We are inclined to think of God’s presence during more joyful times and less inclined during sadness, especially when death is untimely and this, the death of Samantha, is untimely. It is out of order. It is very much out of order and especially when Samantha birthed forth new life just days ago.

"It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make sense that here comes new life into the world, planned and chosen, with the excitement of looking forward to it.

Items of remembrance on the altar in St. Columb's Church.

“It came out of a suffering body, a body that was actually on life support. The new life birthed out of that.

“And the birthing mother, the parent, passed. It doesn’t, doesn’t make sense. But the presence of God, and I don’t know how to describe that, but somehow it’s in our presence, as a grieving community, family and friends, and the tears and the weaknesses and the brokenness and everything else that is part of this, is present. God is present in all that because God is present in us,” he said.

Immediately after the homily Eviegrace was taken to the baptismal font where she was Christened. Her father Josh then carried his daughter to the coffin of her late mother.

Fr. Joe told mourners how Samantha’s ‘goodness’ will live on among those who loved her.

Mourners at the funeral of Samantha Willis on Monday.

“You know her goodness....it is present. You know her heart. You know how she lived, Joshua. You fell in love with her because of who she is.

“That’s not in the coffin. Who Samantha is, did not die. Her physical presence died way too soon...she wasn’t old enough to die but her heart and her soul and her spirit didn’t. In fact, if anything, that expanded.”

The Derry-born priest returned from Florida for the service. He addressed Samantha’s grieving husband directly.

“Joshua is my nephew and the first of the nieces and nephews so we go back 36 years. I can hardly believe that.

“It is impacting you the most Joshua, I know...I can’t identify at all that sadness that your whole life as husband and wife, all your plans, they seem shattered and they are.”

Fr. Clifford referred to a moving tribute John had posted in the hours after Samantha’s death on Friday.

He had stated: “I have lost the love of my life Samantha to COVID-19. Samantha had put up a strong fight for the last 16 days but in the end just wasn’t enough.

“She did her best to come home to her family and beautiful children and shortly after 12 o’clock in the early hours of this morning passed away peacefully in ICU in Altnagelvin Hospital.

Myself, her mother and two eldest children were by her side. She was in no pain and was comfortable when she slipped away.

“Whilst in hospital she also had to deliver our newest addition to the family who she has never met properly or held in her arms. I will make sure that Eviegrace will know all about the mother she will never meet. I will never let anyone forget you and I will remember all the special times and experiences we shared together.”

At her funeral Fr. Clifford acknowledged Josh’s ‘strength and resilience, your love for Samantha’ and noted that what he wrote in the obituary has ‘already travelled the globe several times [and] describes the depth of your love and your commitment to Samantha’. He said no-one could have envisaged what transpired over the past few weeks.

“I can recall two and half years ago when the words that you both spoke ‘until death do us part’ were not planned to be this soon and yet they have visited you in real time way too soon,” he said, adding, “Your words that you wrote just a few days ago spoke to your commitment that continues and that’s who you are. That describes your character and your deep, deep love for Samantha. Your words on your wedding day were words but they were enfleshed and especially so since Samantha’s death. They are now truly enfleshed in who you are, and your children, Samantha’s children.”

After her Requiem Mass at Chapel Road Samantha was interred at Ballyoan cemetery in the Waterside. Her death on Friday has plunged the north west into grief with many expressing solidarity with her heartbroken family.

A fundraising page has been set up by her friend Sara McCaul. Over £4,000 has already been raised to help support Josh and Samantha’s four children Shéa, Holly, Lilyanna and Eviegrace.

“Family and friends have been left devastated by her sudden passing at what should be a joyous occasion to celebrate. Anyone who knew Samantha would agree she had a heart of gold.

"She was always looking out for other people and was much loved in her role as a carer,” said Ms. McCaul.

Donations can be made at the Friends of Samantha Willis Gofundme page.

A minute’s silence was held in Samantha’s memory prior to Derry City’s clash with Sligo Rovers at the Sligo showgrounds on Saturday.

Samantha’s widower Josh has urged people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Following her death last week he said: “I spent hours in ICU on Thursday and Friday with my wife who passed away. It’s real, the numbers are real. Get your vaccine so you or your family don’t have to go through what I have had to. As I write this I am laying beside her, she is 35, unvaccinated and in a coffin. Let that sink in.”