Above all, Sister Mary Mark Mahoney loved people. Perhaps that was the life force that kept her going for so long, the heart beat that sustained her until her 106th birthday last month.
She loved her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph. She loved the kids she taught for 35 years. She loved the retreatants she served at House of Prayer in Stillwater. And she loved the prisoners on death row to whom she faithfully corresponded, never learning their crimes, never caring to know.
As Valentine’s Day nears, Sister Mary Mark is a reminder to celebrate love in its broadest terms. The 106-year-old may have lived a celibate life of service, forgoing marriage and motherhood, but no one had more love in her heart than she did.
The Minnesota native began her prison ministry in 1974 after reading an ad in a national Catholic newspaper seeking people willing to correspond with prisoners on death row. She spent hours composing handwritten notes to three prisoners in Southern states, choosing beautiful note cards, usually scenes of loved landscapes.
Over time, her letter ministry expanded. One Christmas the list swelled to 50 inmates in Duluth, Minn., simply because she wanted to make sure they got something for Christmas. When Valentine’s Day arrived, she sent 50 more cards with personal messages. Fifty more went out for St. Patrick’s Day, and another 50 for the 4th of July. She continued until all 50 recipients had been released.
“Knowing she couldn’t change the conditions of the prisons or the penal system that employs execution and solitary confinement, Sister Mary did what she could to ease the journey for the people she met,” wrote Jen Parlin, a St. Catherine University student who captured Sister Mary Mark’s oral history for SisterStory.
“I want to encourage them in their life,” Sister Mary Mark told The Catholic Spirit’s Dave Hrbacek last winter, shortly after turning 105. “I feel that that’s the best thing I can do, and my writing is still good.”
Hrbacek described her life of grace, quoting Mary Lou Carney, a retired chaplain who volunteers at the Carondelet Village where Sister Mary Mark lived. “Mary Mark continues to be one of the most grace-filled women I’ve ever met in my life, who wakes up in prayer with God and lives her day in prayer with God,” Carney said. “Mary Mark said to me a few months ago one morning, ‘I feel like I’m on retreat all the time with God.’ She lives her life in a spirit of prayer. And she reaches out to the prisoners, truly to be a vessel of God’s love and grace. She’s a blessing to this world.”
Hrbacek, an award-winning journalist, captured the details that defined her joyful life. Among them were her chocolate drawer:
“She has a not-so-secret stash of chocolate candies and bars in her dresser drawer. She does all she can to give it away, but more keeps coming in to replace what she hands out.
Perhaps, that’s a metaphor for the life she has been leading for more than a century. God keeps giving her more years, and she keeps giving the joy and encouragement she holds in her heart to those around her — and to those hundreds of miles away locked up in a solitary prison cell.”
Hear more about Sister Mary Mark's life and accomplishments on SisterStory Presents: