Sister Mary Mark Mahoney should have been expecting a birthday party Jan. 11. After all, she turned 105 that day.
But, there she was full of surprise when she was wheeled into the chapel of Carondelet Village in St. Paul at 1:30 to a chorus of applause and well wishes. Several dozen people extended their hands in a formal blessing, then followed with the traditional singing of Happy Birthday.
“I never expected anything like this, ever,” she said, not long after her green, Irish-themed cake had been cut.
A handful of Smartphones were held up to capture the heartwarming moments in the chapel.
No doubt, Sister Mary Mark will include the joyful details of her birthday party in the next batch of letters she sends off to three prisoners in correctional facilities in various parts of the country currently locked up in solitary confinement.
Though writing has become more difficult in recent years, she would not dare forget to correspond to inmates she holds dear. She began the ministry shortly after she retired from active ministry in 1974, and is believed to be the first member of her community to do so. Her list grew to 50 at one time, and she enlisted other sisters to become pen pals of prisoners, too. The letters she writes about every two weeks have become a focal point of her life — and a reason why she wouldn’t mind living until her 110th birthday.
“I feel that that’s the best thing I can do; and, my writing is still good,” she said. “I want to encourage them in their life.”
How could an inmate not be touched by someone who has lived for more than a century, and is using the short amount of time she has left to send a message of hope inside one of the darkest places of human existence?
“They [prisoners] don’t want her to die,” said Mary Lou Carney, a volunteer at Carondelet Village for the last year and a half who is a retired chaplain.
Carney and many others feel the same way.
“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.”
Sister Mary Mark was born in 1911 in South St. Paul and entered the CSJ community in 1932. She was a junior high teacher at several schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and beyond, including St. Anne in Le Sueur, St. Stephen in Minneapolis and St. Patrick in St. Paul. She also worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St.Paul and St. Mary’s Hospital and Boys Home in Minneapolis. She moved to Bethany Convent, the sisters’ retirement community, in 2001 and later moved to Carondelet Village after it was built in 2011.
She continues to amaze the staff at Carondelet Village with her continued letter-writing to prisoners. And, she occasionally ministers to them, too.
“Mary Mark is one of my favorite people,” said pastoral care coordinator Kathleen Conrad. “She’s one of the first people I was told I had to meet when I started to work here, when she was merely 101 years old. So, we’ve celebrated birthdays together for the last four years, which has been a joy. My title is pastoral care coordinator, but when I need pastoral care, I go visit Sister Mary Mark.
Just her presence is so rich and such a blessing for me.”
She then went on to reveal to her 105-year-old friend what the friendship has meant, as she turned to her and said, “Without knowing it, you take care of me.”
But, lest anyone think Sister Mary Mark has reached perfection, it was pointed out that she has one vice — and a very strong one at that.
“Mary Mark adores everything chocolate,” Carney said. “And, she shares it. She likes to give a piece of chocolate to her caregivers to thank them.”
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.
“Mary just has a way with them,” said Sister Betty Gits, 90, who has known Sister Mary Mark since she entered the CSJ community in 1943.
For any prisoners who think the next letter they receive might be the last, they needn’t worry. There’s a plan in place to keep the notes coming, even after Sister Mary Mark can no longer do it.
“Mary Lou Carney is the one that will continue,” Sister Mary Mark declared. “She’ll be a good one.”
As for her own future, the 105-year-old nun offers a smile and simple remark when asked about it.
“It’s all in God’s hands. I feel good,” she said, refusing to speculate on how much time she might have left on this earth. “However long God wants me [to live].”