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Milwaukee's Irish "Ma Mary" Cared for Colombia's Poorest

Marquette University Press

An Irish Milwaukee mother’s faith leads her to the slums of Colombia. Her story is being told in the Irish Fest Cultural Village today.

Reconnecting Milwaukeeans to their Irish heritage and featuring city residents of Irish descent is a big part of the Irish Festmission.

So it makes sense that "Ma Mary" McCormick will be featured among them. McCormick spent years working in the barrios of Bogota, Colombia, leading efforts to reach the poor alongside her children and other lay and religious missionaries.

Among them was Don Mueller, now retired as director of the World Mission Office in Milwaukee.

McCormick also inspired people back in Milwaukee to help the less-fortunate – like Jackie Maggiore. She and Mueller teamed up to tell McCormick’s story in the new book, Fluent in Faith: The Gift of Mary McCormick.

Early life

McCormick lived with her large family on a farm in rural Wisconsin. During her childhood there were several droughts that left her family destitute and essentially starving. The family was forced to leave the farm and move to Milwaukee when Mary was 11.

Maggiore says the experience of such struggles had a profound impact on McCormick, who learned how to make do with less. This would be an important skill when she was later widowed at a young age with seven children.

Mueller says her faith helped her through these early crises - as did her deep intelligence.

"That's one of her characteristics that I think throughout her life really opened up opportunities and she turned it into something that helped her to help others," he says.


But Mueller says McCormick was also extraordinarily curious and very daring. That's why it wasn't totally surprising that McCormick, a widowed mother with three young girls still at home, might suddenly decide to move to Colombia.

McCormick had been attending church when she spotted a brochure seeking volunteers to become lay missionaries in Latin America. Mueller says she had always maintained a broad world view, but had a specific life-long interest in the region.

Though she didn't initially think she'd sign up, Maggiore says soon she was planning to leave the United States.

"She had this desire to be doing more, always be doing more," Maggiore says. "It just seemed natural to her to take this leap."

Of course, Maggiore says it didn't seem natural to anybody else, particularly her brothers who worried for her and her daughters' safety. But Mueller says McCormick respected her children in "unique way."

"She somehow or other felt her children would fend for themselves," he says. "She was there as a loving caretaker in a sense she loved them, but she let them experience life."

The family left for Colombia in 1968.

Early efforts

"She just takes it upon herself to reach out and do something, and that seemed to be the motto from her childhood on is to do something about a problem when you see it." -co-author Jackie Maggiore

Once McCormick and her daughters got settled in Colombia, she began teaching English at an internado, or school for girls, that was conveniently located next to the family's new apartment.

But McCormick loved to explore and soon found herself lost in the nearby barrio. The area was situated in between the downtown and a prestigious school for the wealthy's students. Most of the people who lived in this barrio were poor. Many of the men worked as construction laborers, the women as day maids at the nearby homes of the rich. Their own homes were nothing more than shacks, often one room per family, made out of whatever materials could be salvaged.

McCormick was shocked by the poverty, and soon began going to the barrio with a group of ecumenical women. During these visits, Mary tried to learn the people's needs.

"She focused on people and would listen intently," Mueller says of her attitude.

One pressing need was for child care, and McCormick soon began working at a day care center, where she would build relationships and contacts within the barrio.

Milk program

By the early 1970s, McCormick was gaining the trust of people in the barrio. She also learned of other widespread needs.

In one instance, she saw a mother nursing her baby with sugar water. That inspired Mary to develop a milk program for mothers, to help provide them and their babies with proper nutrition.

"Mary came up with this idea of, well, we need to somehow or other give milk to these mothers, while they're still pregnant and help them...to have safe deliveries and then to provide milk for them afterwards," Mueller says. "A lot of the women because of their poor nutrition couldn't breastfeed."

"This was a program that really took off and that really started to win the confidence of the people," he says. McCormick would later gain the moniker "Ma Mary" by the people in the barrio.

The program was also an example of her "creativity in dealing with difficult situations." She designated "milk captains" to help run the program, usually young women with few skills in whom she recognized leadership qualities. These captains would make sure the mothers were maintaining their babies' health and collect the nominal fee for the milk.

Maggiore says charging the mothers for the milk was an important part of her philosophy toward "charity."

"That was  a strong belief of hers that it was more important to the person you're serving to have a participation of it," she says. "You wanted to respect the dignity of the people that you're serving."

The milk captain program was also geared toward recognizing this dignity.

"These were women who were neighbors and then they could oversee and help their neighbors and that was a dynamic that affirmed these women, but also gave them an impetus to even be better at what they're doing," Maggiore says.

More projects

Credit Jackie Maggiore
Author Jackie Maggiore met Mary on a rare trip home to Milwaukee.

McCormick didn't simply impose her agenda on the people; rather both Maggiore and Mueller say she had an incredible ability to listen to the needs of the people and develop creative solutions.

She developed essentially "microfinancing" loans to help people improve their homes, encouraged hydroponic gardening, and helped children with health problems or who required eye or orthopedic surgeries. She also developed a senior center for the elderly, at a time when there were basically no government social welfare programs available to them.

Many patients, families and others in need stayed with her; McCormick's doors, it seemed, were always open - including to a religious brother who came to set up a chapter of Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity in Bogotá .

One story demonstrates McCormick's generosity and conviction to help others for Maggiore. McCormick had heard about a young girl who was hiding in the bushes of the city. The child had some mental disability and was very frightened. McCormick, determined to find her, connected with the young girl and bring her in to safety and assistance.

"It impressed me that she just takes it upon herself to reach out and do something, and that seemed to be the motto from her childhood on is to do something about a problem when you see it," Maggiore says.

Fluent in faith

McCormick was "fluent in faith," Mueller says, meaning she "walked with God." He points to a biblical passage that calls on disciples of Jesus to not give to those who can return the favor, but to give to those who have no resources. McCormick, he says, demonstrated this example in every aspect of her life.

She often brought back that message upon her return trips to the States, during which she would educate her family, neighbors and others to think of and care for the poor. She often brought back handicrafts made by the people in the barrio to sell and collect donations for these families.

"Mary also saw herself as wanting to spread the message and connect the people of the United States to the needs of the world," Maggiore says.

She echoed this message even until her final days when, Maggiore says, she urged her family not to forget Colombia - a metaphor to remember the poor.

Maggiore will be doing a reading and signing on Friday just before 6 PM at the Literary Corner; Don will be doing the same at 12:30 PM on Saturday. On Sunday, they’ll be presenting in the Theatre Pavilion near the Literary Corner from 3:45-4:15 PM, with a signing to follow.