The Morning Call, Feb. 18, 2012
When I was growing up in a small town in Schuylkill County, a strong woman was my hero. Before folks heard the word, Mary was a feminist in the Forties.
She kept Port Carbon, except for a few contrarians, Republican. In nearby Pottsville, she had a patronage job, matron at the county courthouse. I never had the nerve to ask her what the matron did.
She knew every judge, lawyer, bureaucrat, policeman and politician in the county. And they knew her. In Port Carbon, Mary was your network. She could get you out of jail quicker than a lawyer could.
Mary had a big heart. She and Vince had no children of their own, but they raised a few. None bore their name. Billy came to live with them when he was eleven after appearing in juvenile court on a petty theft charge. Mary happened to be sitting in the courtroom. Billy’s parents told the judge they couldn’t handle him. The judge said he’d have to send Billy away. They called it “reform school,” in those days.
“Judge, you can’t do that to this nice boy,” Mary said. “What can I do?” the judge replied. “I’ll take him home,” she said. She did. She and Vince raised Billy until he enlisted in the service.
That would have been enough to make Mary my hero; but she also did something for the women of Port Carbon that no man could have done.
My parents operated a neighborhood tavern in Port Carbon for some 35 years. That’s where I got the scoop. After I was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, my mother quipped that she may have already heard more confessions than I ever will.
Domestic violence, wife battering, may have been every small town’s dirty secret. The word in town, however, was that if a woman was abused by her husband she should call Mary. Mary went to the house, She’d go jaw to jaw with any man, confronting the abusive husband for the jerk he was. Her language was vivid. I’d love to supply samples. The confrontation often ended with the husband spending the night in jail. Mary could get you out of jail – but she could also put you in.
Some women didn’t call Mary. Some felt they had no economic alternative. Some feared that something worse might happen to them later. Some stayed in the “relationship” for what they called religious reasons. It was difficult to convince some that God did not want them to be abused.
One of my favorite readings is from the Book of Isaiah: Thus says the Lord who created you, who formed you: [Hear this word the Lord speaks to each one of us.] Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God… You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… Be not afraid, for I am with you…
Hear this word of the Lord… hear it in your mind and heart: You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that. He has written hundreds of columns for newspapers and collaborated with Jenifer Gamber in the 2009 book, Your Faith Your Life: An Invitation to the Episcopal Church.]