The Mother of God statue atop the Notre-Dame-de-bon-Secours chapel overlooks the Montreal harbour. The statue was built by St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame. Photos from Wikimedia Commons

Mary Marrocco: Keeping faith in calm and chaos

  • January 15, 2018
Oxford is a beautiful town, by nature and centuries of human living.  Exploring there once with friends, we saw a memorial, arrestingly inscribed: “To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome.” 

Wanting to see the “nearby spot,” we found a sunken cross on Broad Street. There, in 1556, Archbishop of Canterbury Cranmer, tied to the stake, stretched his right hand into the fire, as he’d declared he would because “this was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.” 

“It” was the recantation of his Anglicanism, which he’d signed (in the reign of Catholic Queen Mary) to escape this very fate, and then repudiated, thereby accepting death by burning.

Like the (Catholic) eyewitness, whose written account illuminates Cranmer’s courage and the gut-wrenching incongruity of Christians killing Christians, we were profoundly moved by the dramatic story made vivid here. It was soul-disturbing, uncovering the violence we’re prone to and, at the same time, the passion and commitment faith can evoke.

How can we live in a world, and a Church, where both are so intensely present and at times so inter-mingled?

In my first full-time job, I learned the ways ordinary people can treat each other. Office politics, back-biting, unreasonable requests, deliberate obfuscation, infighting, quarrelling, territorialism, relationship wounds and hurt feelings — and more — were evident.  Since it was a church job, these discoveries were even more distressing. Things should be different here. They weren’t big and horrific like public burnings, but showed the same chilling co-existence of faith and violence.

St. Augustine, back in the fifth century, taught catechumens the wonders of the faith. He also warned that they’d discover the Church isn’t free of sinners but full of them. They might find themselves wondering:  “How did I get here? I thought love was here.” Yes, love is here, but our failures to love are, too.

How can we be present to both, and not lose our way?

Saints are people who, by their lives, demonstrate it’s possible. Holy people aren’t magically separated from human foibles and their effects, but right here in the mess they somehow channel the sublime. My good fortune, or God-protection, gave one such, the supervisor who guided me in that first job.

Long before I knew how much I would need it, she showed me it’s possible to stay grounded in faith and truth through it all, even in the present moment of confusion and chaos. Church life doesn’t bring escape from each person’s pain, nor from our capacity for evil. It brings the joy of meeting witnesses as shining as my guide, the late Sr. Mary Hamilton.

She looked pretty ordinary, 70 years old, a servant of the Church since joining the Congrégation de Notre Dame at 18. She always kept her sense of humour and loved telling embarrassing stories about herself — like the time at a business lunch with the Archbishop, when he said something amusing after she’d just taken a big sip of orange juice, she couldn’t help laughing and spit it out all over him. 

Still, she wasn’t blind to anything going on. She had an agile, quick mind. She didn’t harbour resentment and didn’t judge people, but recognized wrong-doing and manipulative behaviour, and stood her ground against it. If her gentleness fooled people into thinking her a pushover, they were mistaken. 

Once, when she exposed the bad behaviour of some people she was working with, they realized their plans were undone and — as she said, quoting Longfellow — “they folded their tents like the Arabs, and as silently stole away.” 

Another favourite story was about the statue of the Mother of God atop the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-bon-Secours in Montreal, built by her community’s founder, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. This statue looks out over the water, welcoming sailors and travellers with arms outstretched, “Our Lady of the Harbour” of Leonard Cohen’s song. Sr. Mary told of the attempt to turn the statue around so she’d face the city, and how she became too heavy and refused to abandon her people arriving from everywhere. 

Perhaps from them — her patroness and the Mother of God — she learned to stand firm through everything. She wasn’t afraid to meet life’s quandaries, big and small, with the light of her faith.  Truth and compassion were married in her. 

She exemplified her own favourite expression: “Modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it’s because they are witnesses” (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi 67). 

Sr. Mary witnessed that people can be like that. This changes everything, even how we can remember the failures and glories of the past on a church monument.

(Marrocco can be reached at