As a St. Ann board member, Greg Rose got to know Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Edna Lonergan. After his death, Greg’s widow sought guidance from the Franciscan Sisters and in particular Sr. Edna.
Sr. Edna invited her to Bafut, Cameroon where the Tertiary Franciscans ran St. Joseph Girls Vocation High School. While Mary recalled that she didn’t even know where Cameroon was located, she said yes immediately. Being an adventuresome person who, as a youngster, had wanted to join the Peace Corps, she welcomed the trip as a diversion.
Little did she know it would change her life forever.
“As a young child I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, but that door didn’t open for me,” she said, describing the invitation to Cameroon as perhaps another door of opportunity that was beckoning. “I didn’t know what I’d do there, but Sr. Edna said to just trust.”
at Loaves and Fishes Gala, Oct. 9
Mary Rose will receive the 2010 Franciscan Hope Award on Saturday, Oct. 9 at the 10th annual Loaves and Fishes Gala hosted by the Basilica of St. Josaphat Foundation. The event begins with a 4 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, followed by a silent auction, dinner and voice auction held at the U.S. Bank Gathering Place at the Milwaukee County Zoo. For ticket information, call (414) 645-5623.
In Cameroon, Mary found poverty as she had never seen. The 300 girls, ages 13 to 24 at the boarding school, used ditch toilets, a concrete stall for sponge bathing and didn’t have toilet paper. But she also found a treasure in the young girls at the school.
“They were so hungry for education, so excited to learn, they were so happy with everything they had and appreciative of anything you’d give them,” she described.
Sr. Theodosia Baki, a Tertiary Sister of St. Francis, and principal of the school, remembers clearly Mary’s first night in Cameroon when she took her on a tour of the facility.
“I opened a door to show her a dormitory room and her reaction was visible,” she described. “Mary pulled back, and asked, ‘Is that what I am seeing?’ There were two kittens on the mattresses and the stench was terrible. Some of the mattresses were dirty,” admitted Sr. Theodosia.
The next day, Mary sought out the nun and said, “I went home, Sister, and I didn’t sleep. Did you say the girls slept on those mattresses? We have to do something. We have to get new mattresses. Human beings should not have to sleep on mattresses like that. I could see the pain going through her,” recalled Sr. Theodosia.
Mary not only helped replace the soiled mattresses, but in the years that have followed, she has spearheaded fundraising efforts totaling more than $500,000 that have led to the construction of an educational development center completed in fall 2008 and featuring sanitary toilets and showers, replacing the outdoor nozzles that served as showers and the ditch toilets and the former dormitory which had been a 20-minute walk from the classrooms.
Mary was also instrumental in the name change for the school from the St. Joseph’s Vocational High School for Girls to St. Joseph’s Comprehensive High School for Young Women. She explained that the new name reflects the school’s mission of developing leaders, rather than just teaching vocational trades.
“When you educate one girl, you educate the community,” said Mary. “When a woman is educated, it brings about equality and when a man knows a woman is educated, she commands more respect. When a woman is educated, she can do marvelous things.”
Another project she instituted is a pen pal program where the young Cameroonian students correspond with pen pals in Milwaukee from Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, her alma mater, and St. Joan Antida High School.
Her fundraising efforts were briefly interrupted nearly three years ago when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, but in spite of ongoing chemotherapy treatments, Mary persevered. With the help of good friends, including Sharon Malenda, her work for the Cameroonian school continued.
In what Sr. Theodosia described as a miracle, Mary is cancer-free today, more determined than ever to continue her mission.
In the few years she’s been involved with the school, Mary can already point to several success stories. One former student, a recipient of a scholarship Mary instituted, is a nursing student at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Other graduates are studying at universities in Great Britain, Ireland and Cyrus.
Mary has made three trips to Cameroon and has also hosted Cameroonians in Milwaukee such as Sr. Theodosia who is currently visiting, helping to raise funds while developing her own education. She is spending time at Alverno College, Mount Mary College and Divine Savior Holy Angels and St. Joan Antida high schools to learn school administrative procedures. For example, she plans to model staff development programs after what she has observed here.
When Sr. Theodosia returns to Cameroon, Mary, who is known respectfully as Mama Rose to the students and staff, will help chart the course for the school through daily e-mails and occasional phone calls. She’ll also continue fundraising in order to improve the school. She hopes to create a soccer field adjacent to the school for recreation.
Mary’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In the past few years, she’s been honored as the alumna of the year by DSHA High School and Mount Mary College, she received the 2008 Vatican II Award from Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, was the 2009 recipient of the Point of Light Award from the McCarthy Grittinger Weil Financial Group and on Saturday, Oct. 9, will receive the Franciscan Hope Award from the Conventual Franciscan Friars of the Basilica of St. Josaphat.
“Mary embodies the exact characteristics of what the Franciscan Hope Award is all about – instilling hope in others,” said Franciscan Fr. James Jankowski, former rector of the basilica. The award has special meaning for Mary, as her husband, Greg, received the same award posthumously in 2002.
“An idea all by itself has no meaning unless it’s attached to people and things. This is the philosophy of Mary Rose, who deep in her heart knew she wanted her life to make a difference for the underserved populations in our world,” said Sr. Edna. “Knowing this was an issue far greater than she could achieve, her reliance on God and passion for this issue has captivated the hearts of her friends and donors, and provided for them an opportunity to partner with her to make the world a better place.”
Mary is quick to acknowledge that she could not have done all she has accomplished without others. “I could not do anything without all the help of others, people who believe in my story and gave very generously. I am very humbled, very shy. I am not doing this work; there is a higher power doing this and sometimes I feel like I am going somewhere but I am not driving. I am just a puppet, just a vehicle,” she said. “This is the story of the girls and these awards are humbling but embarrassing. But I look at the awards as another opportunity to tell the story.”
As she looked back over the last decade of her life, she reflected on the challenges and blessings she’s experienced.
“I look at my husband’s death certainly as a tragedy, but also an opportunity for me to do something beyond what I believed I could. It opened up a door for me to lead a different life, to be challenged into something else. I’m sure he’s very proud of me, and in some ways, he’s helped me along, but something else is divinely directing me, this whole project is divinely directed.”