Several years ago, I had the great privilege of going on a mini-vacation with my sister to Cape May. We stayed at an historic hotel for a long weekend. I was so looking forward to soaking up some sun and just spending time with Lisa, whom I dearly love.
After a wonderful day at the beach, watching the mesmerizing flow of the waves, enjoying the squawking of the seagulls and the dance of the sand pipers, we were ready to get to bed. As I prayed Morning Prayer within the Liturgy of the Hours on the balcony of our hotel room very early the next morning, a smile came to my face. You see, two young girls had joined me for Morning Prayer. They ventured out to the balcony outside of their room a floor below mine. As the sun began to rise over the ocean, they began to sing “Ave Maria,” “Our Father,” and “The Glory Be” in a melody that I had never heard before. Tears rose in my eyes and I praised God to experience the clarity of their voices as well as their love of an awesome God!
As my sister and I walked to church, I met these two young vocalists and their adoptive parents. The girls were from a part of the world (the place has escaped my memory) where such a display of faith was against the law. These young girls, who were no more than 8 or 9, experienced the slaughter of their entire village just because they were Catholic.
I could not help thinking of this experience as I continue the series of individuals who made our diocese holy. The list of canonized saints, venerables, and servants of God have been exhausted. I now turn to an individual who did ordinary things in an extraordinary manner and who forever shaped our diocese by her love of God: Mary Moriarty Brindle. Mary was the 15-year-old daughter of an Irish immigrant father and a Philadelphia Presbyterian mother who were all probably among the original settlers of Mechanicsburg and was the only Catholic in town.
“She led devotions in her home for years for the few Cumberland Valley Catholics, but she persistently visited and wrote to the bishops of the Diocese of Harrisburg urging them to supply the small Mechanicsburg group with priests for Mass as well as a permanent place for worship. After 21 years of praying, visiting, and letter writing, in 1879 the first Mass was celebrated in a local home in Mechanicsburg for a group of sixteen people.”1
The entire story is told in her diaries that have been kept by the Diocesan Archives. A summary of Mary’s life written many years after her death by an unknown author describes this event in this manner: [Her diaries] “tell clearly the great Catholic that she was. … Few parishes are so fortunate as to have such a careful and complete record of beginnings, written with loving hands. They tell of her fidelity to her devotions, especially on Sundays when she had no opportunity to travel the miles to mass in Harrisburg. They tell of the way she found other Catholics – isolated and drifting no doubt toward the loss of faith, which is the tragic story of so many in the Cumberland Valley. One day she was working in the garden, singing the ‘Ave Maria’ and looked up to find a man looking at her over the fence, wonderingly. ‘Are you a Catholic?’ ‘So am I.’ She had found a friend and devoted co-worker in Mr. Albert Bihl who with his family joined forces with her in working for a church.”2
It seemed that once Mary found a group of Catholics hungry to deepen their faith, she would gather the group on Sundays. She would read the prayers of the Mass and a sermon on the Gospel of the day from a Catholic devotional. In 1872, she began to teach the Catholic children catechism.
By 1890, Bishop McGovern took the first step toward establishing a permanent church when he purchased a plot of land on East Simpson Street for “St. Catherine’s” Church for Mechanicsburg. Finally, by 1900, under the personal patronage of Bishop Shanahan, the ground was broken and the church was completed. Bishop Shanahan paid for the building from his personal funds. He wrote to Mary, “My dear Mrs. Brindle – I thank you and the members of your family for the interest which you have taken in building of this little chapel in Mechanicsburg.”
The new chapel was called St. Joseph’s by Bishop Shanahan because “St. Joseph was a mechanic, and this suited Mechanicsburg, and this in spite of the fact that the title to the property has been taken by Bishop McGovern for St. Catherine’s Church. … and the rest is the founding history of the parish of St. Joseph!”
What can we take from the life of Mary Brindle? I think that the plaque erected in honor of Mary at St. Joseph’s 40th anniversary and penned by Bishop George Leech says it amazingly well, “In loving memory of Mary E. Moriarty Brindle, Valiant Servant of God, whose exemplary Catholic Faith inspired her abundant good works in found and growth of the Church of St. Joseph.”
She is the woman who began a place of worship. She is a woman who had a profound love of God that was infectious to others. Doesn’t it make you want to sing? How about an “Ave Maria?”
2History of St. Joseph’s Mission Parish, Mechanicsburg. Located in Diocesan Archives. p. 2.
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness