For more than a quarter of a century, residents of Juan XXIII barrio became accustomed to seeing Mary McCormick weaving through the labyrinth of shacks that dots the Andes Mountains, which embrace Bogota.

The Milwaukee native, nicknamed “Ma Mary” by the Spanish-speaking children, spent most of her days accompanying and aiding the poor in Colombia’s capital city as a papal lay volunteer, despite escalating crime.

The journey began after husband, Tom, died in 1956, as Mary (Mahar) McCormick, a member of Milwaukee’s Holy Rosary Parish, struggled to feed her seven children. Despite extreme hardship, she always had time to help others in need, providing a place to stay, or an extra place at the table. In 1968, the yearning to help others was so strong that the 56-year-old widow packed up her three youngest daughters and began life in Bogota. Her daughters lived in Bogota for a few years before returning home.

Faith was common language

A book titled “Fluent in Faith” chronicles the life of McCormick and describes her desire for outreach. Though she never mastered Spanish, she had little trouble communicating, as faith seemed to be the common language uniting her with the culture.

Co-authors Donald Mueller and Jacqueline Maggiore had not met before collaborating on the book, but they have fond memories of an extraordinary woman whose youngest child was born the day after her husband died.

If you would like to learn more
“Fluent in Faith” by Jacqueline Maggiore and Donald Mueller Available through Marquette University Press, Amazon and other major book retailers and through a book signing at the Celtic Women International (CWI) Book
Club – monthly meeting Irish Cultural & Heritage Center (ICHC) – 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1 p.m.

Maggiore remembered McCormick, who died in 2002, on one of her visits home in 1971-72 from Bogota, eager to earn money by babysitting.

“Mary came to my rented upper flat on the east side of Milwaukee to take care of my three young children,” said Maggiore. “It was like a grandmotherly Mary Poppins walking in. She exuded warmth, genuine affection and love for the children, and for everyone she met. At age 60, she was full of energy and good spirit, with twinkling eyes and a great sense of humor.”

Through their conversations, Maggiore became enamored with McCormick’s work in Bogota and frequently attended her speaking engagements. Several years ago, she became reacquainted with McCormick’s children and her life when she served on a committee sponsoring an event to honor a Maryknoll sister and McCormick.

‘Why don’t you write about our mom?’

“In preparation, I met with Mary’s daughters and loved hearing their stories, filled with examples of Mary’s accomplishments, adventures and incredible lively humor,” said Maggiore, active at Gesu Parish. “My book, ‘Vessel of Clay’ was about to be published and Mary’s daughters turned to me, saying, ‘Why don’t you write about our mom?’ I found myself in love with Mary and said I’d be honored. I already thought she was pretty spectacular, but I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of her faith-filled life of service until I worked on the book.”

As details of McCormick’s life unfolded, Maggiore became convinced the story needed to be written.

“I believe Mary’s life can be an inspiration to many. Her life was not easy, from her family nearly starving in the early days to her husband’s PTSD after WWII, to his sudden death when she was nine months pregnant,” Maggiore explained. “Still, at every moment, she relied on her deep, personal faith relationship with God. In fact, that faith relationship seemed totally natural to her, not an effort, not a struggle, but absolutely natural.”

Partner on the project

McCormick’s family presented Maggiore with contacts to assist with telling her story. One of the contacts was Mueller, who worked with McCormick beginning in 1972 when he was a lay missionary.  

“I wanted to interview him. I had no idea who he was, but learned that he’d worked with Mary in Bogota,” said Maggiore. “We met over lunch and connected quickly. His own knowledge of Mary and his ability to describe her were powerful. I suggested he might want to write this book, and he replied that perhaps we could do this together. I remember him saying that if ever there was a book to be written, it could be called, ‘Fluent in Faith,’ which I thought was an excellent title.”

While a high school student at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, Mueller wanted to become an international missionary; after leaving the seminary, he did missionary work in Colombia.  

He was introduced to McCormick by another lay missionary from Milwaukee and during his time in Colombia often went to the weekly prayer meeting at McCormick’s home.

“We became close friends, especially through meetings and meals she hosted for Milwaukee missionaries,” he said.

Mother-son relationship forms

Their friendship transformed into more of a mother-and-son relationship with McCormick often imparting practical and spiritual wisdom to the young missionary. Mueller taught school, but when he lost his first job, McCormick provided him with guidance and references for a local high school.

“Through her help, I got that part-time job, and later a different job at the Jesuit and Christian Brother universities in Bogota,” he explained. “However, our relationship was mutual. We shared many ideas and concerns, especially for improving our services.”

‘Saint in our days’

As with Maggiore, Mueller was touched by McCormick’s deep faith and close relationship with God, especially in the midst of enormous trials.

 “While others might draw back or turn negative in such circumstances, she used those setbacks to do something beautiful for God and others,” he said. “I agree with Bishop (Richard J.) Sklba, who encouraged a biography of Mary to be written and provided the foreword for the book. Mary is a real saint in our days.”

According to the 67-year-old Mueller, no one has resembled Jesus more to him than McCormick.

“Mary helped start a community day care program because working moms had been locking their children in one-room shacks while they went to work. She also began a milk program, similar to W.I.C before it existed in the U.S., so that mothers and children would receive good nutrition and care,” he said. “Not only did she help people, but she respected their dignity and elicited their involvement in the process. The milk was not a handout; mothers paid a small portion of the cost and had to fulfill requirements. She recruited some of the participants to monitor and promote good parenting.”

Seeing the need for better housing, McCormick began a no interest loan program using U.S funds so that men could turn their shacks into healthier, more secure, three to four bedroom brick buildings.

“After 30 years, people showed me their receipts from paying back the loans with a great sense of pride,” said Mueller, a member of St. Patrick Parish, Racine. “Mary believed in education very strongly, despite the fact that she turned down a four-year scholarship to Marquette University to help support her own family during the Depression years.”

While in Bogota, McCormick began a revolving loan program for textbooks and found sponsors for the students to help them study. She also began a grandparent program so that elderly could socialize.

“She also paid a sewing teacher who came to the barrios so that women could learn a skill that they could do at home and help earn a living for their families,” said Mueller. “Her home was a place for both Colombians and foreigners to stay, if needed. It was home to many lay missionaries from the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Columbians from all parts of the country who came to Bogota for extended healthcare and had no place to stay, U.S. citizens who had been released from prison and needed a place to stay before returning home. A register recorded more than 400 entries.”

Authors hope to inspire others

The number of ways McCormick served God through helping others is so numerous that it is often difficult for others to grasp, as Mueller learned when speaking about her to various groups.

“Mary shows us that Jesus asks us to cross borders of culture, background, language or class and move beyond our personal ‘safety zone’ to reach out in love,” he said. “Mary involved rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old, Colombians and people from around the world to form a closer family in God. Mary’s is a love story that warms and stretches our hearts. I consider it a great blessing to share it.”