In 1984 I was in my mid-20s and had the great fortune to live and work in the heart of Philadelphia as a door-to-door evangelizer, carrying the Word of God to men and women in their homes, schools, and businesses all over Pennsylvania and in the areas of New Jersey closest to us. Not only was Philadelphia a growing, thriving area, but in addition the Daughters of Saint Paul community in that city had a “no fear” attitude toward evangelization. With the encouragement of our superior, Sr. Mary David, we would try anything for the sake of the Gospel!
It wasn’t always easy to go door-to door for the Gospel, and–as you can imagine–it had its rewards and its challenges. One of the rewards was identifying places we’d never gone before, to find opportunities to bring the gift of the Word to new people. So that year, during the novena to the Queen of Apostles, it was with full hearts that we focused our hopes on the New Jersey piers, just over the bridge from Philly. Like Caleb in the Old Testament readings, we dearly wanted to reconnoiter our own promised land—and to take it, with the grace of God!
On the Feast of the Queen of the Apostles, with the blessing of our superior and the prayers of our sisters in community, Sr. Lily and I made our way from our convent at the corner of 17th and Chestnut St., over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and onto Camden pier yard.
Life was simpler at the Camden piers in those days. Security personnel easily allowed the two unassuming, habited nuns—with black leather bags overflowing with books—onto the yard. Many of the men who worked there were Catholic, and many others appreciated the presence of women who obviously belonged to God and would pray for them and their families.
After visiting one or two buildings, and selling some of our marvelous Pauline editions, we found ourselves at the edge of the water with a massive ship in front of us. Exactly what we had prayed for! Our hearts had burned for weeks with the prospect of getting onto one of these vessels from a foreign land and bringing the sailors God’s word of light and peace. As we assessed the thin 40-foot “ladder” that led to our goal, we paused for a moment. The ladder was constructed like nothing we had ever seen before: two rope handles on either side of a rounded (not flat!) steel step built for one person at a time. Then, with excitement and joy, we turned to the burly foreman and asked, “Can we go up?”
“Sure,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Just make sure you see the captain first.”
Whether his twinkle was about our ability to scale that height, or the captain’s reaction to having two nuns on his ship, we’ll never know. I started up first, with Sr. Lily close behind. We must have been a sight! Our veils furling out like flags, dress shoes and long black habits, holding onto the rope with one hand and with the other arm bearing the weight of our heavy bags, we made our way determinedly to the top.
At the 15-foot mark Sr. Lily gasped, “Sister Martha, I don’t think I can make it!”
I responded, “Oh, Sister Lily, come on, you can do it, we have to!” and I doggedly continued. After three more steps, panting and starting to be overcome by panic (and perhaps finally a little bit of prudence), I looked down and thought, What if one of us falls? I’m not so sure I can make it any farther, either!
At that moment, a tall, muscular sailor—who seemed to us like an angel—appeared as if out of nowhere on the ladder. Now how did he do that? I wondered. There is really only room for one on this blessed ladder…
He flourished a smile, “Hi, sisters! Let me have those bags!” Taking them easily, he swept past us and up to the top, turning to help us climb aboard, and all the while with a huge grin on his face. We thanked him profusely, and thanked God for deliverance from our own exuberance!
We made our way to the officers’ deck to see the captain, a serious seafaring man of Greek heritage. He readily gave permission for us to meet all the men in the mess-hall. The crew was from Sri Lanka, English-speaking, and since they been at sea so long, they were very much missing God’s visible presence provided by chaplains, churches, or shrines of any kind. Overjoyed to see us, they eagerly chose books for themselves, the favorite being one on Mary, our Mother and Queen. After that, one of the men asked, “Sister, would you lead us in prayer?” We gladly obliged, praising God together with them, aided by the intercession of Mary the Queen of Apostles, who had so surely guided us that day and brought us to these men so far from their homeland.
This story is just one instance of Mary’s protection and help in the lives of the Daughters of Saint Paul, apostles dedicated to bringing the Word of God to people all over the world. Where does Mary, Queen of Apostles have a place in your life?
At your baptism, you received what is known as the “universal call to holiness,” a sublime vocation. All Christians are called to holiness, to live out their faith in Jesus, to witness to him in their own sphere of life, work, and activity. Because we have this call, we need to grow in our knowledge and understanding of it, as well as sharing it with others. Peter is speaking of this type of sharing, or apostolic witness, when he says,
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
1 Peter 3:15–17
St. Peter speaks of always being ready to give an explanation; but what prompts people to ask for one? Witness, a life lived according to Jesus’ way, gives depth and meaning to one’s life, even in suffering, and makes people stop and think.
So in addition to giving information, we can also witness with gestures. We can make the sign of the cross. We can say grace when stopping to eat, whether in public or private. We can offer acts of generosity, respect, and care for those around us, especially for the poor and those less fortunate than us.
But who can show us how to do this in a world that can be so confusing? Jesus gave Mary to the apostles, and we see that it is she who is with them in the Cenacle when they await the coming of the Paraclete. She was there to be a Mother to them, and, after the Spirit’s arrival, to help them apply God’s wisdom to their lives as Teacher. As Christ’s message spread, she would reign under him as Queen, as his way, truth and life spread in our hearts and those of others for the life of the whole world.
Yes, Jesus entrusted Mary to John at the foot of the Cross, and then entrusted John (and all of us!) to her motherly heart. So we can live our faith and lean on our good Mother, Teacher, and Queen to continue her care through time, showing her protection in the everyday, in small, hidden and sometimes even amazing ways we could never have imagined.
So now it’s your turn! I'm sure that Mary helps you grow closer to Jesus and witness to him. What ways have you seen her present in your life? Please share with me in the comment section below, and if you enjoyed my story, share it with your friends! May God bless you and may Mary, our Mother, Teacher, and Queen help form you into the image of her Son.
Sr Mary Martha Moss, FSP