Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mary of Rome or The Canadian Duck Part II

[This is the second installment of my story of Mary the Fascinating, my long-time friend I visited in Rome. Part I can be found here.]

me and Mary on a balcony in the Apostolic Palace with the Dome of St. Peter's

And so Mary, sixteen year old American girl, began her work in the orphanage of Mother's Village, a community run by the Herzegovinian Franciscans to serve the children wounded by loss of home and family during the Bosnia Herzegovina war in the 90's. 

It is not the object of this narrative to delve into the recesses of the heart of my dear friend, interpreting and contemplating on all that transpired within her as the events of her life unfolded. But rather to tell her story as I remember it, because it is close to my heart, and because it is so interesting. Therefore, I will not attempt to divulge what happened inside of her as she moved into this home with motherless, fatherless, abandoned, abused and exposed little ones. A tender, fearless girl she always was. 

on our way up to the Basilica of St. Francis
with some special picture takers in the background

Furthermore, I cannot tell you what it must have been like the first time she held Ante, the newborn baby whose mother died before he was born, and who was to be Mary's particular charge. But I can imagine: Mary, really a young and impetuous thing, one who looked both young and impetuous, thirsting for adventure not attachment. And little Ante, whom I have also met, with his soft cheek, and dark Croatian hair and eyes just as deep. I cannot tell you what must have happened within her self in those first moments, those first love-heavy days. That's for Mary to tell.

But I can tell you that at this time Mary and I began our epic correspondence that continues as such, uninterrupted, to this day. On her days off she would spend time, when money allowed, at the internet cafe and write home, write to friends.

Mary is on the right with a friend on the left, walking
into Vatican City. I wasn't trying to be all artsy,
but my phone camera was on a filter by accident. oops.

Did I ever tell you what  a stinker of a child Mary was? When I first met her, she referred to me as Gollum, that lovable little creature from Lord of the Rings, which her mother had been reading to her at the time and had captivated her imagination.  I suppose for no other reason than that she thought that it was sure to infuriate a self-conscious, shy wannabepretty teenage girl. Sorry, but I just thought it was funny, and she has called me that ever since. And so the emails from her always began with "Dear Gollum," and likewise mine ended with "Love, Gollum."

Inside the Apostolic Palace, Mary and a friend. Again with
the annoying filter.

In these emails to Gollum, Mary would relate to me her love for little Ante, pouring over details of his development the way any new mother would. Perfect as he was, Ante was born with a hole in his heart that would require special care for him, and resulted in him being weaker and more likely to fall ill than his counterparts. And she would tell endless funny tales of life at the orphanage, making no concessions for manners, and poking fun at the particularities of the nuns who worked there, the village gossip, and whatnot.

And then there were the horrible, dark stories of those suffering around her. Looking into the eyes of these Children of God who saw things with their naked eyes unspeakable to you and me. I remember one particular episode she recorded with a boy, I believe around 7, who was especially filled with violence and hate, and bore a special grudge against Mary. He was uncontrollable and irrational, and the nuns were greatly tried by him. One day Mary decided to take him away on her own, without anyone but the two of them. She let him thrash about in the fields, and didn't give him guidance, or try to talk to him about his problems, but let him wander. At one point, she could see he was processing something internally, and Mary attempted to draw him out. He turned on her violently, but being so much smaller, could do her no real harm. She watched as his eyes held her tightly, tightly, so much hurt behind them, and finally, he released into tears, and cried inconsolably heaving, heaving. And relaxed into her arms where she just held him. What the end of his story was, I never heard. But I know that Mary was present for him in that moment. 

a woman of many talents

Mary read anything she could get her hands on, and wrote about it in her letters, a never resting mind, eager and interested. Honestly, great reader though I have ever been, I never developed a taste for Jane Austen before Mary's professed love of her, as well as the Brontes Three, and I am ashamed to admit it, but it was actually Mary who gave me Crime and Punishment, her once and always favorite read. She took no formal classes at this time, but found that she had a natural talent for language, and easily mastered Serbo-Croatian, not just perfunctorily, but like a native speaker, as I have heard not by her account, but from countless others. She also is quite an absorbing conversationalist, and would listen and listen to the many, many pilgrims who came to Mother's Village, from all over the world, carrying with them entire histories of people, cultures, interests. Mary listened and absorbed.  

Most importantly, Mary was not only living with Ante and the orphans, but with the Franciscan sisters, and their beautiful way of life. I know from her that her faith was of more than a serious nature, it was essential. An almost burdened love she has for Christ, constantly in need of time with Him. Daily mass, adoration, Confession, falling deeper and deeper into the embrace of the Blessed Mother, this was her life. But always remaining a bit on the wild, rambunctious, outspoken side as well. She was a normal teenager, love interests and all. 

In her apartment in Rome, taking out the trash

So two years or a little more passed in this manner. In the summer of 2003, when Mary was eighteen, she brought Ante back to the United States with her. She, along with family and friends, had arranged for Ante to have surgery to repair the hole in his heart, pro bono from a prominent surgeon in Chicago. The operation was a complete success, and he spent the summer with her and her family in South Bend, healing and becoming stronger. The repair left Ante with a stronger heart, and stronger in general, and with a prognosis that he would not require care that was quite as intense. Mary had found donors, quite a many of them, in fact, who would pay for a caregiver to work with Ante in his true home with all of his siblings and father, growing up among them instead of in the orphanage. Which would mean the heartbreaking separation of the two. I will not in the least attempt to describe this end to the closeness they shared. This story is not fiction, and involves real souls. And although Mary and Ante still see each other and remain close to this day, the reader can only imagine what it cost the heart of each of these two to enter the next stage of their rightful lives.

During this summer in South Bend, Mary had studied for and taken the GED test. I don't have this for fact, but I was told from reliable sources that Mary had scored the highest grade in the state of Indiana at this time. 'Nuff said.

So what was next? Mary never disappoints, stay tuned!


  1. Hi! Thanks for visiting my little blog. I have so enjoyed reading through your beautiful place here. I am adding you to my Dashboard. : )

    Have a nice day!

  2. Oh my goodness, you have me in tears or better yet Mary has me in tears. What love, what determination and what a gift you have in the friendship of Mary. I hope she writes a book one day, or if she would let you write it that would be wonderful too. You are such a gifted writer!

  3. Thank you for sharing this story. AND pictures.

    like you said..Mary never disappoints and you are so right.

  4. You are such a gifted write, and Mary sounds like such a beautiful person. I'm eagerly awaiting Part III

  5. Someday this is going to be the beginning of a biography about St. Mary Nolan Benedicta Stein, or somethin' like that...

  6. Every bit as wonderful as the first part. Have I said it before how much I wish I knew you in real life?

  7. Love the photos and the story about Mary. I think the filter that you used is called a pinhole camera filter. I think it adds a nice effect.

  8. wow, love this post...the pics as well as the commentary are wonderful!!
    My hubby and I were in Italy in '96...visited Assisi and loved it! Your pics brought back so many memories.

    Thank you!!

  9. Must have a hat for this Lady of Rome. Head size? A new muse she has become! Love you, MJ

  10. I'm weeping right now. Weeping. Somehow my stupid *&^*%^*! email wasn't delivering your posts to my inbox so I didn't see these Canadian Duck posts until now.

    But that's actually not why I'm weeping. (My impatience being what it is, it's actually a treat that I got to read these all at once.) Rebekah, your friend Mary sounds amazing. Truly unique and beautiful. The part about the little boy in the field reminded me of a boy I met in Mexico many years ago. Mary's love for that little boy was truly the Hand of God at that moment, and my guess is that was a turning point for him.

    But Rebekah, do you know? Do you know how lucky she is to have a friend like you? To have someone who sees through all the eccentricities our society shuns, someone who sees deep into her to find the beauty? She is blessed indeed.

    Thank you for blessing the rest of us with this tale. I am better for having read it.


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