In Memoriam: Sr Mary Mark Mahoney

Sister Mary Mark Mahoney, CSJ was one of our Oral History participants; interviewed by Jennifer Parlin at the age 103. Since then Sister Mary Mark has been talked about and her story shared by many different SisterStory podcasts. On January 11th, 2017, on her 106th birthday, Sister Mary Mark Mahoney, CSJ passed away. In memory, and in celebration of her life, this podcast shares some of her story.

Transcript:
Jen:
She was just sweet and sleepy, I guess was the way I describe her. I mean, she was just so relaxed and so calm. And then when you get her talking then you see her passion start to emerge and she would tell these stories and you could see that she was living them again. And, she would get passionate about things. But then she would sort of recess and be very relaxed and calm and quiet. So, that's sort of her constant state, but then she'd really get going. She was very energetic and really cool.

Rocky:
When we conducted her interview Sr Mary Mark Mahoney was 103 years old. Her remarkable kindness and love and decades of service left an incredible mark on everyone who had the honor of hearing her story. A story touched by multiple sister story podcasts. On January 11th 2017, on her 106th birthday, Sr Mary Mark passed away. In memory, and in celebration of her life, this podcast shares some of her story.

Sister Mary Kraft:
I’m Mary Kraft. It's my privilege to serve as the archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet at St. Paul province.

Rocky:
What is outstanding about Mary Mark?

Sister Mary Kraft:
Well I think she was an ordinary person with extraordinary gifts, and those extraordinary gifts were kindness and compassion. These gifts were obvious in her life as a teacher helping seventh and eighth grade students struggling with math, as a team member welcoming retreats to the House of Prayer as a parish visitor spending time with the elderly and as a pen pal to men and women in prison. As a pen pal to prisoners she often said, “it's the best thing I've ever done.”

Jen:
One of her big things is she runs a prison ministry now . . . No, she doesn't run it, but she corresponds with prisoners that are on death row and writes them letters and they write back to her and talking to her about that. And, sort of seeing her perspective on how she view the prisoners was really informative to me and actually changed my perspective on a lot of the prison system things. So, that was surprising. But, basically we did a lot of conversation and not much else.

I will go right back to the prison ministry that she does because that was definitely when she was the most passionate was when she was talking about dealing with the prisoners that she wrote to. And, she actually was called to testify on behalf of the prisoner back in the 90s. And so she was in her 80s and they flew her down to Oklahoma, and this was actually right after the Oklahoma City bombing. So, they were working at a different site than the main courthouse and she was fiery about this court case that she was involved in, as this prisoner was someone that was of limited intellect.

He had been struck in the head when he was a child and so he didn't have full faculty and was accused of killing someone. And, from Sister Mary's retelling and then actually from newspapers that I found later on, there is some suspicion to be cast on the actual truth in the story. And, he was actually executed still. They they did not listen to his appeal at all and she was extremely fiery about that, and really passionate about the way that this man actually looked at the jury after they said, “we're not going to rescind your execution,” and said, “I forgive you all.” And, just the way that she talked about seeing Christ in him and just the fiery retelling . . . you know, she pointed to each juror as we're sitting here and she's telling the story. You could see that she could see the jurors and she could see this prisoner saying, “I forgive you, I forgive you I forgive you.” And the way that she told it, it was it was one of those moments where I kind of had to sit back and didn't have anything to respond with. It was just so powerful. I mean it really was.

Sister Kathie:
We have one sister in our community who's 102 or something now. Her whole last years of ministry have been writing to prisoners. She still doing it.

Rocky:
Is this Sr Mary Mark?

Sister Kathie:
Yeah,

Rocky:
Yeah, OK. I watched her oral history.

Sister Kathie:
Oh yeah?

Rocky:
Yeah.

Sister Kathie:
Amazing. Amazing human being. And, that is who these people that you would wish that people carry these stereotypes and we've talked about so much would see. You know? It’s too bad everybody doesn't know a Mary Mark.

Jen:
Sr Mary you're awesome. And, thank you so much for sharing your experience.

Sr Mary Mark:
My pleasure.

Jen:
Oh, you're fantastic.

Rocky:
Sister Mary Mark was paired with Jennifer Parlin who through her experiences with Sr Mary Mark found that some of her previous ideas or views on criminal justice or the prison system as it stands were challenged and ultimately changed. To highlight this, I'm going to share a blog posting she made.

Christmas Cards to Prison:
Sixteen years ago Sister Mary Mark read an ad in a national Catholic newsletter seeking people willing to correspond with prisoners on death row. She enrolled in the program and was connected to three prisoners in various Southern states. She developed close relationships with them, sharing her love of Jesus and messages of comfort. Their crimes were not her concern, and she never asked about the reason they were "locked up."

Rather, Sister Mary Mark spent countless hours composing handwritten notes to the prisoners on beautiful note cards, usually scenes of beloved landscapes. Her correspondence even led her to travel to Oklahoma City in 2000 to testify in the appeals case of a prisoner she had been conducting long-distance Bible study with along with writing letters. The appeal was denied, and Sister Mary Mark was deeply marked by the man she was defending. She told me of his reaction to the jury’s decision and how he openly forgave the people who upheld the death sentence. Her voice cracked in the recounting of this moment, and her stance on the death penalty became abundantly clear.  She also spent a Christmas season writing handwritten Christmas letters to 50 inmates in Duluth, Minn., simply because she wanted to make sure they got something for Christmas. When Valentine’s Day arrived, 50 more cards were sent with her messages. Fifty more were sent for St. Patrick’s Day, and 50 more for the 4th of July. And so she continued until all of her original 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.      

For me the prison thing is a tricky one. My sister-in-law Vicky worked as a guard in a maximum security prison for 10 years. She knows the offenses committed by each offender before she ever sees their faces -- quite the opposite of Sister Mary’s perspective, who knows each prisoner as a person first and sometimes never knows their offenses. Vicky has never shied away from her feeling that people don’t change, an offender will always be an offender and reform rarely ever happens.

I will admit, Vicky had me convinced for quite some time that she was correct on this....and for some offenders she may be. After knowing Vicky’s perspective of prison for so long, I had forgotten that all offenders are people with interests and passions and senses of humor, with fears and favorites. They are prisoners, yes, but they are still people too.

The view that Sister Mary has of her prisoners is one that sees the person first and forgets the rest. During my most recent visit with her, Sister Mary had me hang the photo of one of her prison pen pals and told me the woman’s story. As we both looked at this face together I felt myself unable to pass judgment on this woman as I was looking at her eyes. They were sad and searching, and yet there was something familiar to them as well. Sister Mary made a great point: These people were caught up in circumstances we don’t know and had to do things that, if given any alternative, they wouldn’t have done. They are paying the price for their mistakes in dire, dreary circumstances and may never see the light of a free day again. They don’t need any more judgment; instead what they need are others to remember that they are valid, vital people who crave love and companionship just as we do. They are human and prone to error, just like us.

Sister Mary Kraft:
She made no judgments about people, she simply accepted each person as he or she was. She began to write to prisoners across the United States when she was 86 or 87 years old. At one time she was writing to as many as 50 prisoners, although the number was usually closer to 25. Some were in prison for life. Some were on death row. Her message to prisoners was always and it was repeated, “There is a God who loves and cares for you, just like I love and care for you.” When she was 89, this would have been in the year 2000, she flew to Tulsa Oklahoma to appeal a death sentence for a prisoner. He was later executed. Before he died, he said to Mary Mark, “I'd love to see my god. I'd also like to live.” Mary Mark really believed the man was innocent. Another prisoner said to her at one time, “I never heard about God until you started writing to me.” One more example, and this is from correspondence in our province archive, a woman wrote to Mary Mark saying, “it's funny how a lady who knows me only through my letters thinks of me more kindly than my loved ones. Goes to show that we never know where the grace of God will show itself.”

One of the things I did. I was reading the National Catholic report.

Jen:
OK.

Sister Mary Mark:
There was an ad in there for people to correspond with prisoners. So, I thought, “well, I could do this.” And, I had found it good. And the first thing I knew, there was more need for correspondingly.

Jen:
OK.

Sister Mary Mark:
So, to make a long story short, I still am corresponding with three.

*break*

Sister Mary Mark:
And then, I was one of the founders of the House of Prayer in Stillwater.

Jen:
Yes tell me more about that. Can you tell me what a spiritual advisor or what a spiritual companion does? I know you’ve mentioned that you’ve done that.

Sister Mary Mark:
Well like, you know, we trained for that. And, we just invited people to speak, you know, whatever they like. So then, depending on who they were or what their life was like, we’d give advice. And, that really worked out beautifully. And, people came there for a retreat.

Jen:
OK.

Sister Mary Mark:
And, they stayed very there.

Jen:
OK. Around what time were you working at the House of Prayer? Do you remember what years that was?

Sister Mary Mark:
It was ‘74.

Jen:
OK.

Sister Mary Kraft:
I do know that her reputation preceded her. She was a lively member within our community, very involved in elementary education when, so many years ago, it was primarily sisters serving on the staffs. Being on a faculty like this would include and would involve, in addition to actual teaching curriculum, development meetings with parents and other responsibilities. After she supposedly retired from teaching in the 1970s she worked as a receptionist in some of our buildings, and there were a number of committees she served on. She lived for many years with our sisters in parish convents, and that would involve daily prayer in community and the sharing of household tasks including planning for special holy days and holidays. Mary Mark loved being a member of our community, above all, I think you can say that Mary Mark was an ordinary person extraordinarily involved with daily life. Really there was a sweetness about her shone in the kindness and compassion she extended to others.

Jen:
What has surprised you the most about being a sister?

Sister Mary Mark:
I never thought we'd have the freedom to do all the many things that we're doing.

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