I started writing this the day after attending the funeral celebration of someone who for over 50 years had an enormous influence on shaping the frameworks of Palms Australia and formerly the Paulian Association. It was a celebration on January 15th because Mary Gilchrist personified the principles by which Palms operates: always there, with hands open, to engage with others; to create a just world of opportunity for all. Despite only having a daily presence in my life from 1995-1997, when we worked together at the Croydon Park office, Mary has influenced my daily activity for the last 20 years.
While sympathetic to those in greatest need, Mary challenged all to identify and bring their best efforts to action centered on gospel values. Some Christians wear the initials WWJD as a reminder of those values. Since coming to know her at the Palms preparation process during 1992-3 one of my guiding questions has been What Would Mary Do? She is large in the audience that comes to mind when I need to write an article, develop a strategy, or push for structural change.
I never saw Mary in the image of Mary mother of Jesus, or my own mother, that I wrote about in Palms 2013 Christmas letter. She was not the stereotype that fitted those feminine images of a woman into which I was socialised by church and society pre-60’s. She was a formidable woman who did not pull punches, and did not mind being the conscience of any, no matter their position, when it came to addressing issues of justice.
In 1998 I was introduced as Paulian President to a Bishop who reacted with: “Oh, a bloody Paulian.” Immediately I decided he had crossed Mary’s path. As a Paulian Mary proclaimed the work of the laity in the Church until it nearly drove us all mad, but she had reason to be proud. The Paulian Association since 1956 had created ways for meaningful lay involvement in living out their faith, beyond going to Church to pray, long before Vatican II in the 60’s asserted such a role for what they would come to call the ‘People of God’.
Mary once proudly explained to me that the organisation was named after St Paul because he earned his living as a tent maker and was able to share the good news of Jesus without the influence of patrons on whom other preachers and holy men relied for their livelihood. As she put it Paul felt free to share what was the radical and very challenging view that the kingdom of God was more available to the materially poor than the privileged. It was good news, which shook the foundations of the hierarchy of that time and Mary’s stimulus still helps us to challenge the culture with that news today.
Despite sometimes rubbing those in positions of authority the wrong way Mary had a deep respect for church hierarchy. Perhaps she understood as Fr. Bob Maguire (“In Bob We Trust”) suggests: the stability of the hierarchy as represented by St. Peter provides balance for “the creative chaos, encouraged by Paul, that is necessary for a church to act in the world”.
She clearly shared the view expressed by Bob Maguire that a parish is of no earthly good unless it is skilled-up. By the 1980’s Mary had assisted the training of Paulian lay groups operating in up to 100 Sydney parishes. The training she encouraged was known as the Review of Life, which was adapted from Monsignor Cardijn’s See, Judge and Act process to assist parishes to identify injustice, reflect on gospel values and take action to address it.
I believe Mary was what the Enneagram indicates as a “Gut” person: someone who 90% of the time instinctively knows the right course of action to take, or where someone is coming from, and names it. Clearly many were comforted by her decisiveness, but it could be uncomfortable or even confronting, for those of us who took a little longer to work our heads or hearts around to the same position. Perhaps at times Mary needed to appreciate that many of us took longer to come to share the truth that she recognised more immediately. While some may have been alienated by her candor, when you came to know her you realised the value a Mary gives to any group.
I don’t believe Bob Maguire knew Mary, but when “In Bob We Trust” he goes on to say: “The church needs to recognise that there is a special role to be played by people called prophets: people who see through things, and see through them (head office)” he describes Mary G to a T. From the beginning in the 1950’s, when the organisation was named and its principles established, from when Mary served as the first Paulian Association secretary, right through to 2000, after 15 years as Executive Director, and beyond this is how Mary G gave example to the Paulian way.
I met Mary G at a PALMS orientation course in August 1968. I had been introduced to PALMS some years earlier by Fr Otto Shelly SVD who celebrated Mass at our local church at North Parramatta. Like many others I can remember Mary over the years in the office, at meetings, at orientation courses and masses, at fund raising events etc. From hearing her eulogy I learned that Mary had many more interests and activities. We were not close friends, but always happy to see each other. I suppose in my mind I saw her as a boss with lots of things on her mind.
While I may not have remembered her words I did remember her face (or faces).
There was a party/social event at the end of the orientation course – with lots of dancing. I’m (was) a fairly shy person and was happy to sit down with a drink and watch others have fun. I clearly remember looking up and out of the corner of my eye seeing Mary and Roy observing me with a concerned look from the other side of the room. I thought my socializing skills are under observation. So I got up and danced and carried on for the rest of the night.
Some years later I attended a Paulian or PALMS event at Roy Boylan’s house. There was a swimming pool. We were all fully clothed and partying on. Then there was a little pushing and shoving and then a splash. I’m sure that it was Roy, not Mary, who ended up in the pool. And I saw that exuberant face.
Many years later I walked into the New Guinea Art shop in the Queen Victoria Building and there was the smiling face of Mary. That is the one I remember most.
I have stayed at Mary’s home, we have met in Sydney for a day out, and we sometimes talked on the phone. Mostly the contact was initiated by Mary who was always interested how I was going as I struggled from time to time after coming home from PNG as a Palms returnee, firstly from Goroka in 1995 and later on from Banz in 2011.
When I saw Mary in Liverpool hospital during her illness I finally got around to telling her what struck me about her was that she was a nitty-gritty person. She simply replied thank you. The last time I spoke to Mary was three days before her death at Glenfield. I leant over and said “it is Graham.” She struggled to speak but managed to softly get out “my friend.” Thank you Mary, you were there for me be it actively or silently, though that is not to mean noiselessly as that would not be you Mary!
Mary with John ODwyer and Cecily Smellie at Paulian 50th Dinner 2008