Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 30th, 2009

Mary Was Here

A pilgrimage for my two mothers



When I was ten, my favorite movie was Mary Poppins. As it begins, British siblings Jane and Michael Banks write an advertisement listing their requirements for a new nanny. Their father — a curmudgeon who prefers investment banking to parenting — shreds the heartfelt proposal, throwing it in the fireplace and into infinity. His children’s wishes reach Mary anyway; she sits perched contentedly in the sky, as if waiting for them. With the snap of her fingers, Mary Poppins could transform a routine bunch of chores on a mundane Monday into an eternal summer Sunday afternoon at the carnival. Truly, Mary was capable of the miraculous.

Twenty-five years later, I found myself seeking Mary again. This time, it wasn’t Disney’s bohemian nanny that I yearned for, but Mary the Mother of God, who is capable of making miracles happen in real life. I hoped I’d find her in France.

As I sat in the San Francisco airport waiting to board an eleven-hour flight to Paris, I thought back to the many events that led me to be embarking on eight days of volunteer service in Lourdes, along with 15 strangers and a priest. As the North American Lourdes Volunteers brochure stated, “Volunteer pilgrimages are profound spiritual journeys in which one experiences the Gospel message of Lourdes and then lives the message in service to others.” Help! I imagined that my first solo European trip would be more along the lines of a Contiki tour for thirtysomethings seeking all-inclusive drinks, museum passes and a date. Instead, I had reluctantly chosen what was to be a serious pilgrimage for serious Catholics. I was bound not to fit in.


Though I attended thirteen years of Catholic school and a Jesuit University, my faith had waned in early adulthood. I spent my 20s in New York City and California, chasing my dream of becoming a writer and an actor. I became the type of Catholic that shows up on December 24th and Easter Sunday. My relationship to the Church had become akin to my subscription to The New Yorker; it was always there for me, once a week, but I usually didn’t have time to read it. Paying my dues twice a year would have to suffice. Being a commercial success that lived on both coasts was important to me; being a Catholic was not.

I became the type of Catholic that shows up on December 24th and Easter Sunday. My relationship to the Church had become akin to my subscription to The New Yorker; it was always there for me, once a week, but I usually didn’t have time to read it.

All of this changed in September 2006, on the fifth floor of St. Peter’s Hospital in upstate New York. The fifth floor is known as “The Inn,” a euphemism for “Hospice Ward.” My mother’s sixteen-year battle with cancer would end here. As I paced the fifth floor, nothing eased the panic or the pain, the fear of losing not only my mom, but also the life of our family, which would never be the same again. I began making desperate deals with God to let my Mom live. I became certain that if I stayed awake, my Mom could not die.

It was around 3 a.m. one sleepless morning that I turned to Mary. It was the only night that I had been alone with my mother in her room. Though she could no longer speak, the sound of her breathing kept my anxiety at bay; and I reached in my pocket for the set of wooden rosary beads my father had given me that afternoon. “I have no right to ask you for anything,” I found myself saying. “But please help me anyway.” For the next several days, the beads did not leave my hands. I began praying the Hail Mary nonstop, finding solace and serenity in the repetition of every word. Each prayer became its own destination, its own reward.

It didn’t take long to realize that the beads had power. The anxiety attacks abated, replaced by an unexpected sense of calm. Three days later, I finally fell asleep on the couch in the day room down the hall from my Mom’s room. At 6 a.m., I awoke to find my father standing over me. “We lost Mom,” he said softly. The reality of his words, and what they meant, was ineffable; yet in the midst of the anguish of that moment, I realized that it was the morning of my mother’s 60th birthday. She had died shortly after midnight, her journey in this world now complete. Though her body was broken, the cancer couldn’t destroy her soul, which was now soaring elegantly toward eternity.


In the aftermath of my mother’s death, I couldn’t ignore the many inexplicable signs that Mary was now a part of my daily life. I was drawn to books, photos and statues of her, and found myself seeking refuge in the stories of her various 20th century apparitions, in Mexico City, Fatima and Medjugorje. Things I normally would have written off as coincidence kept parading into my consciousness: names and dates with connections to my mother and to Mary. I had two mothers now, and while I couldn’t be with either of them in this life, feeling their presence kept me alive. Then, I found out about Lourdes.

In 1858, a “beautiful lady dressed in white” appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 15-year-old French peasant girl whose life would be unalterably changed when she received seventeen subsequent apparitions, after which many miracles occurred. The town she lived in was Lourdes; the beautiful lady was Mary. ” Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou,” she said. “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Mary instructed Bernadette to dig in the ground, and a spring burst forth. These waters began to heal and cure townspeople with varying degrees of illness and paralysis. The waters essentially became the “proof” that Bernadette was not lying, and that something outside the scope of human capability was indeed happening. To date, over 6,000 medical miracles have been documented at Lourdes.

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The Author : Carolyn J. Martone
Carolyn Martone is a graduate of Fordham University and the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2012 she received a three-month artist-in-residence fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, where she finished the screenplay, "Upstate," which is in development for television. She lives in Los Angeles.
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  • Ginny Kubitz Moyer

    This is so gorgeous, Carolyn — thanks for writing about your experience with such honesty and grace. It touches a chord with me (a big Mary fan who also had a bit of an unexpected experience in Lourdes once upon a time). I adore the connection to Mary Poppins, too! — you look at Mary in such a fresh way. Thank you for that.

  • jim

    Very well done. Part of what makes pop culture popular is that it is easy to relate to-the Tao of Pooh explained Taoism in a way that connected something we know and understand to a larger philosophy-and this is what I feel you were able to do with your 2 Marys. Start with where we are, and get us to where you want us to be.
    Again, very well done.

  • Andy

    Another beautiful piece of writing – thank you for sharing your gift with us.

  • Jack P.

    Has this writer published anything else? This is really interesting.

  • Sheila Jordan

    You touched my heart! How wonderful to be able to put such an important part of your life into a beautiful collection of words. God Bless you and stay with your writing!

  • Laurie Morse

    It’s a beautiful piece Carolyn…takes me back to a tough time in your life, and I’m very happy that you are writing about it now…very cathartic I’m sure. You are a prolific writer my dear.

  • John E. Slattery

    Well written and deeply moving.
    Thank you for your faith.

  • Michelle Irons

    I loved this article. Carolyn’s writing style captured me from the first paragraph and I couldn’t stop reading, even as my three children began climbing on my lap. When it ended, I wished for more. What a wonderful tribute to both of your mothers!

  • Joel.


    You are such an exceptional writer. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Please continue to write!

  • Tianna Pettinger

    Thank you for sharing such intimate personal accounts in such a way that we could all see pieces of ourselves in you. The story is at once only yours and everyone’s.

  • Sadie

    This article was beautiful. My grandmother was devoted to Mary and prayed the rosary daily. And it was Carolyn’s Mom’s rosary that I held in my pocket the day I went on my own journey looking for a mother 3 years ago. It was only through the many prayers to Mary that I found my daughter’s birthmother that day, and am now a mother myself. Another one of Mary’s miracles to be thankful for this Mother’s Day.

  • Lisa Gendron

    Beautifully expressed. The feminine divine, compassion and strength shine through. Thank you for sharing this Carolyn.

  • Kate Murphy

    Amazing! I just returned from the funeral of my 95 year old grandmother who had a strong devotion to Mary and reading this article just sent chills down my spine. Carloyn, your writing is so powerful! I felt like I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing that with us all! Can’t wait to pass it along to everyone…

  • Anne Moscinski

    What a comforting piece to read as I approach Mother’s Day weekend. I awoke missing my own mother – as I do most days – althought she’s been gone 12 years. My mother was especially devoted to Mary – as I write this I sit near mom’s statue of Mary. The veil on her head is still stained with my mom’s lipstick from her early morning and late night kisses to start and end her days. Thank you for this heartfelt and well articulated story.

  • Mary Beth Dunne

    I loved the comparison to Mary Poppins! Miracles require the ability to be open to see – just as Carolyn became more open and was tranformed. Great story. Great writing. Thought provoking.

  • Gloria Darrah

    Excellent and beautifully written account of actual happenings. Love the way you write. God bless and keep writing.

  • Dave Cooper

    Your well said words cry and sing the thoughts we often fear to share and the miracles we can recognize only in doing so. Thank you.

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