A Faithful Servant

by Linda Owen

Mary McNamara, whom we called “Mary Mac,” grew up in Chicago in a faith-filled Catholic family. Her parents were both Third Order Carmelites, and it was only the second time in our early years that parents approved of their child joining what was then an unusual, suspect community.

They approved, after visiting here, because of our love for Our Lady and our fidelity to the teachings of the Church. In fact, Mary’s Dad helped the Carmelite group in Combermere register with the national group in Chicago. Mary’s devotion to Our Lady and to St Therese of Lisieux were lifelong. Her middle name was Therese, and her parish church in Chicago was Carmelite.

When she wrote why and how she came to Madonna House, Mary said: “In May 1957, I read an article in The Sunday Visitor about summer school. I had two weeks’ vacation from work so I signed up to come for the week about Mary. Also, I am a Third Order Carmelite, and the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was during that week, so I think the real answer to ‘How I came to Madonna House’ is that Our Lady saw to it that I come.”

Our foundress Catherine’s first talk—about God’s love—drew her. “That is what I was looking for,” Mary wrote. “It’s why I stayed.”

Of the 64 years that Mary was a member of Madonna House, only sixteen were in our mission houses. Of those sixteen, twelve were in Marian Center Edmonton. For four of those years, she was local director. Edmonton then was one of our biggest houses and for many young staff it was their first assignment. So Mary would have had a role in their support and formation.

Mary returned to Combermere in July of 1977 where she headed up our main office. There she remained for the rest of her active life—answering the phones, paying the bills, balancing the books, sending countless thank you notes to benefactors, stamping envelopes, and filing 3×5 cards. Every working day for 30 plus years. There she loved through doing little things well for love of God—like St. Therese.

She must have deeply taken in Catherine Doherty’s vision of the office (which is described on p.3) or how could she have sustained this work for so long? It must have been more than sustained, for when someone asked her about it not too long ago, she said she had “loved every minute of it.”

I was trying to think of words that would describe Mary: practical, down to earth, woman of little things, strong, clear-minded. Fr. Tom Zoeller used the word, “steadfast.” The line from our Little Mandate (which contains the spirituality of Madonna House) that comes to me is, “Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbor’s feet.”

This woman of faith was a hidden light. She had a deep, private, contemplative spirit.

It seems like I have always known Mary Mac. I can’t remember when our friendship started, but I can tell you that it deepened during the years I served as director at Marian Centre Edmonton. (Mary was by then in Combermere.) Her support and friendship became a gift to me, and I like to think that mine were the same to her.

Mary loved the poor in Edmonton, the people in the Yukon (where she served for two years), and the benefactors, both those in Edmonton and those she corresponded with in the office. In sending out our begging letter and responding to benefactors, she very much saw them as individual people, even those she didn’t know. She saw herself as a connection between the poor and our benefactors.

Mary was a humble woman who did not fear to beg for the poor, and who was always very grateful for what was received. She was so simple, so present, to the person on the phone and the person at the door. She was a beggar with those who beg and a pray-er for those who suffer. Her hidden, sacrificial life was a light in the darkness for many; she was that to me.

Mary loved to go on pilgrimage, and she and I went on a few of them together. On those pilgrimages, daily Mass was a must, and we prepared for it by reading the Gospel of the day together. We also made an hour of adoration whenever we could.

We went to Rome in April 2005 just after Pope John Paul II died, and we saw his burial place in the crypt. The Vatican had moved the incorrupt body of Pope John XXIII upstairs to a special side altar in the basilica.

We were walking by that altar when suddenly Mary said, “There you are!” and she fell on her knees. I had no idea what she meant because I couldn’t see the body. Mary’s response was so beautiful; this saint was a personal friend to her.

Mary went to Our Lady for everything. She was a mentor to me in that way. We also went to Lourdes together.

Mary had a way of showing her love in simple, sometimes unusual ways. She somehow became “Aunt Mary” to the seven residents of one dormitory of staff younger than her.

Zoyla Grace told that one night they camped out away from any lights so they could star-gaze. The next morning, Mary drove to where they were, surprising them with a coffee cake she had gotten up early to make for their breakfast.

She also paid for a subscription to a Korean missalette for our Korean members. And, loving pilgrimage so much and seeing its importance, she paid for a pilgrimage to Lourdes for one of the men staff.

Mary liked playing cards and baking, but her main hobby was cross-stitch embroidery, and the patterns she followed were both complex and beautiful. At one point, they were all framed and a display of them were put up in the gift shop.

Mary’s little acts of love did not stop when she was suffering from a lung condition and sent to live at Our Lady of the Visitation, the wing for the elderly staff at St. Mary’s.

One of the newest caregivers there told me that she was nervous about coming into our family life here, and she asked Mary on her first day, “Please, I want to know how to do things here. Just tell me how I can help.”.

Mary would simply say, “Put this here” … “She likes it done like this.” … “Get her a snack” …etc. This approach was Mary’s way of welcoming the stranger, leading the lost, looking out for the other. This care-giver said that Mary was always looking out for the others.

On Wednesday, Feb. 2nd just four days before she died, Mary had a great day. Having been in the hospital, she had wanted to come home, no easy thing at that point. The doctor discouraged this, saying that she might die in the ambulance.

She said, “That’s okay. I just want to go home. I take full responsibility for anything that happens to me in that ambulance.” I think it’s just that she had to be with us.

In her room when she arrived was our large statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a statue which always accompanies our dying members.

I am so grateful  to have spent Mary’s dying days with her. She asked me to make a gratitude list. She named at least 30 persons whom she wanted to thank for getting her home and for taking caring of her. She knew she was dying, she was very peaceful, and this was the last task she asked me to do for her.

Two days later, Mary died, and it was fitting that we laid her to rest on February 11th, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Excerpted and adapted from Mary McNamara’s eulogy.