Soon after Mrs. Mary Hughes moved into her apartment at St. Joseph’s Place retirement home in Toronto, a woman knocked on her door. She was collecting money. Mrs. Hughes explains, “No one knew anyone else in this building when it opened twelve years ago. Two residents had just died and this woman wanted to send flowerd.” Mrs. Hughes thought it was sad that no funds were available for such occasions; so she set about to change the situation.

She organized social events for the building’s seniors, such as bingo, euchre and coffee gatherings, pot luck suppers, bake and yard sales, all the while collecting small change at each event. Eventually the change grew into a “pot” that became a fund for hospitality and worthy causes. Last Christmas she and her seniors donated several gifts of $200 “to places that feed the hungry” and several other donations of $50 each to favourite charities such as the Altzheimer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Providence Villa, a large seniors’ residence nearby, and Rosalie Hall, a home for unwed mothers. That one was probably Mrs. Hughes’ idea. She has a soft spot in her heart for mothers and their unborn and helps them in her own original way.

Last month she turned 83, She says she’s had the same telephone number for 65 years. Her voice on the phone belies her age. When I came to visit her, she greeted me at the elevator so I wouldn’t get lost. She ushered me into her apartment and over tea she described how she managed to get this ideally-located apartment overlooking large trees and garden. “Before this building went up, Father O’Neil, our former pastor at St. Joseph’s Church next door, showed me this location—then a big hole in the ground. I kept staring at one spot. He asked me what I was looking at. I told him I was wondering where to place my sofa.” Her apartment is close to that spot—just as she planned it.

Life is not easy

Mrs. Hughes’ life has not always gone according to plan. Widowed very early when her husband died suddenly from a heart attack, she was left was left to raise a three-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter. However, not one to indulge in what might have been, she moved back into her father’s home and, with his help and that of her maiden sister, she raised her two children. In the evenings, she would take part-time work to help financially, and when the children reached high school she took a full-time office position with an insurance company. At the time of her retirement, she was a secretary to the manager.

Over the years she always helped others. It’s a way of life with her. Her sister had eleven children and little help, so every Saturday Mrs. Hughes would go over to help her with the children. “You know, not one of them ever forgot me,” she says. “They still telephone and take me out.”

Her habit of helping others continued after her retirement twenty years ago.  During our visit she pulled out her latest project.  It’s a large carton labeled  “Socks and Mitts.”  She’s collecting these for the Good Shepherd Refuge, a shelter for homeless men.  “Often these men have nothing to wear on their hands or feet.  We don’t worry about the quality of the socks or mitts or whether they get washed, as long as they’re warm.”  She corners friends and relatives to help fill the box.

The unborn

When asked why she should care about the unborn when she has so many other worthy causes, her bright blue eyes cloud over.  “I love children so much and especially my own seven grandchildren,” she says.  “When I see pictures of babies being torn apart I wonder why they’re treated that way.  I don’t think that’s what God intended.”

When she first heard about abortion, she prayed for the unborn and their mothers.  Then one day her parish priest at St. Joseph’s asked people to pray for the needy and disadvant-aged.  She wondered why the unborn and their mothers weren’t included, so she wrote him asking that they be added to the list.  He agreed.  Now, not only are they included in  prayers at daily Mass, but on the first Friday of every month a special Mass is said for them.  The collection is sent to Campaign Life Coalition.

Penny market

Mrs. Hughes’ spiritual concerns also have a practical side.  A few years ago she read a story in The Interim about the Campaign Life Coalition president picking up any pennies he found on the ground, much to the amusement of his older children.  It occurred to her that if she did that too and others to do the same, the pennies could be used to help the pro-life cause.  She placed a notice on the bulletin boards of her church and apartment building, asking people to turn in their extra pennies to her.  Soon they began to come in and to add up.  And now she has a system.  After she collects about $100 worth, she calls in her senior friends who roll them up and send them off to CLC.  But she’s protective of her turf.  At a recent church meeting when someone suggested collecting pennies for an-other cause, she spoke up, “The penny market is mine for the unborn,” she said.

She likes to get thank-you notes to share with those who help her.  However, she knows how busy the CLC office can get because she used to be a volunteer.  Once, though, she didn’t get an acknowledgement and when it finally arrived, it explained, “We’re sorry to be so late in thanking you but it took us a very long time to count all your pennies.”

As our first draws to a close, I hurry to allow Mrs. Hughes time to rest before receiving her next visitor in an hour.  At the door, I notice a mahogany plaque from the seniors in her building thanking her for all the volunteer activities she’s organized.  Beside it is a picture with a stitched inscription, “Grandmothers are God’s gift to children.”  Her daughter-in-law, Ginny, gave it to her.

She tells me not to rush because her niece, a nun, (the sixth of her sister’s eleven children) won’t be here for a while.  With a twinkle in her eye, she says, “We like to go shopping together about once a month and do a little shoplifting.”

Father Ted Colleton, who has known Mrs. Hughes for twenty years, says, “The character of Mrs. Mary Hughes is based on her deep faith which expresses itself in active charity and a daily caring for people.  As mother and grandmother, she exemplifies love, strength and gentleness.”

He didn’t mention her humour, but if you haven’t guessed by now, Mrs. Mary Hughes is related to CLC’s president, Jim Hughes.  She’s his precious mother.