I’ve met an awful lot of people over the 22 years I’ve been a reporter at The Billings Gazette.
Some I have talked to once or twice, and others I’ve gotten to know over time. A few, like Sister Mary Vincentia Maronick, always put a smile on my face when they call with a story idea.
Sister Mary V., as most people call her, has a kindness that infuses her words. She’s also got short-cropped gray hair, apple-rosy cheeks and twinkly blue eyes.
She has an enthusiasm that's infectious, and she's always got an encouraging word.
I bring up Sister Mary V. because at age 88, she is re-retiring after spending 16 years in Billings. She’s leaving Billings and moving back to the mother house of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Kansas.
Many people who know Sister Mary V. know her for her commitment to a couple of local ministries, AIDSpirit and Always Our Children. She initially came to Billings in 1996 because she had heard about the work of AIDSpirit.
That particular ministry helps people and their families here and abroad who have been touched by the AIDS epidemic. Most recently, the group helped to fund construction of an orphanage in Uganda.
Volunteers also help local people battling AIDS by bringing them meals or spending time with them. The group also holds fundraisers and sponsors an annual service for World AIDS Day.
Through her work with AIDSpirit and her friendships with gays and lesbians, Sister Mary V. noticed something.
“I saw the pain they were experiencing by not being accepted by society in general, but especially in our church,” she told me, when we sat down a few days ago for one last talk. “And I just couldn’t carry that pain and not try to do something about that.”
So Sister Mary V. worked long and hard with others in the Catholic community to establish Always Our Children, a support group for gay people, their families and friends. The idea wasn’t to promote the gay lifestyle, but rather to make gays and lesbians and their families feel welcome in a faith setting.
“We are all created by God with great love,” she said. “God hasn’t stopped loving them and they deserve to be loved by us, too, and we can’t sit in judgment on anyone.”
During our last conversation, Sister Mary V. pointed to a framed photograph of a man named Kevin who helped shape who she is today. She met him in 1994 in Lawrence, Kan., around the time she was cutting back on her work as director of development at the university run by her order.
Kevin, who also worked in grants and research for a university, was gay and had AIDS. She met him after she started volunteering with the Douglas County AIDS Project.
It was Christmas Eve 1994, when she was assigned to Kevin as a buddy, to take him to the hospital and to run errands for him. Along the way, the two got to know each other well.
“He introduced me to the Dairy Queen in Lawrence, Kan., and to art and was a wonderful friend that nourished my heart,” she said. “So many people haven’t been blessed with that experience.”
Sister Mary V. spent many nights with Kevin when he was a patient at the Kansas University Medical Center. One night, she reminded him that she intended to retire from the college in another year or two.
“And I said, ‘If you get to heaven before I do, I’d really like to get your help,’ ” she said. “And he said ‘I’ll pave the way for you.’ ”
Kevin, 32, passed away on Oct. 5, 1995. After Sister Mary V. moved to Billings, she always felt like he was, indeed, paving the way for her, introducing her to wonderful people and important causes.
“One of the things that attracted me to Billings was I knew I had to carry on for Kevin and his friends,” she said.
And so she has.
Sister Mary V. picked up a framed quote that reminds her of Kevin. As she read it aloud, emotion filled her voice: “I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me,” she said.
I’m sure there are others who would read that quote and think of Sister Mary V., and the many lives she has touched during her time in Billings.
I think I speak for all of them when I say thanks.
The Faith & Values column appears regularly in the Saturday Life section of The Billings Gazette.
Pastors, ethicists, educators or other experts who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp; Billings Gazette; 401 N. Broadway; Billings, MT 59101. Or call her at 657-1281; fax to her attention at 657-1208; or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.