ALBANY, N.Y. — Among the residents of the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh is something of an unwilling rock star.
A native of Albany, Sr. Mary Ann moved last summer back to the motherhouse where she first entered the novitiate 50 years ago at age 17. The return from Washington, where she’d lived for nearly 30 years, came as she simultaneously began a new job as U.S. church correspondent for America magazine and learned that she had an aggressive form of cancer, with few options for treatment.
Living and working among about 30 sisters – most, but not all, retired – Sr. Mary Ann has come home both to her hometown and to life in the religious community. She left Albany in 1983 to work in Rome as a Vatican correspondent for what was then called National Catholic News Service. From there it was on to Washington and jobs as reporter and media editor for Catholic News Service and in media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The highlights that stand out for her, however, aren’t the important people she met as much as the quieter things: having some kids present St. John Paul II with a pair of sneakers at World Youth Day; enabling a terminally ill child to meet the pope there; receiving an album of beautiful professional photos from a long-ago student whom she encouraged to pick up a camera.
Like most of the Sisters of Mercy who entered the novitiate in the mid-1960s, Sr. Mary Ann started as a schoolteacher, one of the few career options for a girl from a poor family who wanted to help others. She stepped into a second-grade classroom while finishing her studies at the local College of St. Rose, where she got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. She soon moved on to teach middle and high school, but her love of writing led to a summer job at The Evangelist, newspaper of the Albany Diocese.
“That was a radical step,” she said. “It shocked my community. My mother was just astounded that ‘you could do a job like that when here you had a good, secure job as a teacher.'”
It was just the first of many nontraditional jobs, especially for a nun, the only daughter of Irish immigrants with little education. But nobody was surprised that she pursued writing as a career.
“I told my friends, this is either going to kill me, because they’ll tell me no and I can’t pursue my first love, or it’ll kill me because I’ll find out journalism isn’t all I thought it was,” she said. “But I absolutely loved it. I loved all you could do.”
That summer led to a full-time reporting position. At The Evangelist she wrote a column and did stories from the state capitol and Attica Prison. She twice received an award from the New York Bar Association for coverage of criminal justice.
And she talked her way into a spot on the papal press plane when St. John Paul made his first visit to the United States in 1979.
She arranged with Religion News Service to use their name – and thus get a spot representing a wire service – in exchange for RNS having access to her copy. She was the only reporter from a diocesan newspaper on the plane.
“I had a good editor, who’d let you do that kind of thing,” said Sr. Mary Ann, downplaying the initiative that often defined her reporting.
That same editor from The Evangelist, Fr. Kenneth Doyle, brought her to Rome, when he was bureau chief there for CNS.
Although not the first woman reporter at the CNS Rome bureau, she was the first – and so far only – nun.
Fr. Doyle said when her hiring was announced “there was somebody over there in quite an important position – a priest – who called her the uppity nun. That’s what she had to counteract.”
He said Sr. Mary Ann exhibited a kind of doggedness. “She never stopped in pursuit of what she wanted to find out. She was aggressive but in a kind way.”
She also used the bonds of religious life to her advantage, paying attention to the sisters who worked behind the scenes at the Vatican and getting story tips from them. She arranged for fast turn-around translations of documents issued in Italian by paying the sisters 2 cents a word more than the prevailing rate.
She also went on several papal trips – that’s where she got to know St. John Paul – and into the middle of war-ravaged Lebanon to write about the isolation of the Christians there.
That trip had both her family and her religious superior nervous.
“I told them at the last minute,” she said. “I thought if anything happens to me they’d be really embarrassed they didn’t know. So I called and told them the travel route, Greece, Cyprus, Beirut.
“The superior said, ‘Oh that’s just great, Greece, Cyprus, Beirut!’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ve got a bulletproof vest.’ She said, ‘And you wear that!’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just been ordered to wear a bulletproof vest.'”
Her experience in Rome helped prepare her for her next reporting gig, as the CNS media editor.
“Rome taught me how to cover Hollywood,” she said. “They’re both complete bureaucracies.”
“You’d call Hollywood for something and you’d get some anti-Catholic little bigot,” she explained. “They’d say, ‘Well, Sister, could you put that in writing?’ So I’d hang up and call back until I got myself a Catholic schoolgirl or boy and I’d make the same request. They’d say, ‘Oh Sister, we’ll be happy to send that to you.'”
For the Hollywood media relations staff, Sr. Mary Ann proved a sometimes confusing participant in the press events where TV studios roll out their new shows.
“I said, the Gospel is filled with stories, so I’m looking at this story that you’re telling,” she said by way of explaining what she was doing there. “That was a new concept for them.”
At one event, someone asked a star how he handled the pressures on him, said Sr. Mary Ann. Wordlessly, he started to reach into his pants pocket. “One reporter, said, ‘Oh, he’s going to pull out drugs.’ He pulled out a rosary.”
The press handler went nuts, she said. “‘Quick everybody, change seats.’ So I sat next to the guy who pulled out a rosary to keep himself calm.” After that, the watchword among the media reps was “find the Catholic for Sister,” she recalled.
Though she wasn’t particularly star-struck by anyone she met on the media beat, one of Sr. Mary Ann’s favorite actors she got to know was Chris Burke, the star of “Life Goes On,” centered on a teen with Down syndrome. She also snagged interviews with Raul Julia, Gene Hackman and Bruce Willis.
And she became good friends with ABC and National Public Radio correspondent Cokie Roberts and the late Tim Russert, a fellow upstate New Yorker and longtime host of “Meet the Press.”
Roberts weighed in while traveling abroad to help Sr. Mary Ann find an oncologist to consult.
It was Russert who gave her a bit of advice that got her through World Youth Day, her first foray on the spokesperson side of reporting.
“He said, ‘You own the pope, so you’re in charge.'”
At one point during World Youth Day, she was getting grief from unhappy reporters.
“I kept thinking, ‘I own the pope.’ By the time they walked out they were patting me on the shoulder saying, ‘We can work this out, Sister, we can work this out.’ And I thought, of course we can,” she said. Russert’s advice that “it’s my ball, I make the rules” has stood her well.
But the side of Sr. Mary Ann that managed complex and sometimes delicate media situations and that sometimes got TV stars, White House staffers and one Colorado sheriff up in arms, has been one that her friends and family don’t necessarily see.
One of her nieces, Maura Sommer, told CNS she was pretty grown up before she realized the beloved aunt who took her to McDonald’s for “shamrock shakes” on her St. Patrick’s Day birthday was someone known around the world.
“When she moved to Rome, she would send us pictures of herself with the pope or things like rosaries that had been blessed by the pope,” Sommer said. “We thought everyone got these from their aunts. When we took those to show-and-tell at our Catholic school, the nuns were really impressed.”
Sommer said when she thinks about the hard-scrabble circumstances her grandparents came from, she’s even more astonished at where Sr. Mary Ann has been. A visit to the remnants of the Irish villages where her Walsh grandparents were born hammered home for Sommer the humbleness of the upbringing of her father, uncle and aunt.
“Here’s this person who’s being stopped around the world and asked for her opinions, a woman, a nun,” said Sommer. “And she came from little more than a pile of rocks.”
“We all know what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace now, but she did it on her own, with nobody pushing her,” said her niece. “Yet she’s nothing but kindness and good intentions. She’s plugging along, making a difference.”