By Rosalie Tomeny
Mary Jolley grew up in Ward, Alabama, a rural community with few Catholics and certainly no Jesuits. Born in 1928, her childhood was shaped by the Great Depression, and she grew up wanting to be a source of help for others.
“I have tried to level the playing field for the poor, the distressed, and those in need of help in other ways,” she said. “For almost all of my work life, I have had the privilege of working to find creative solutions for alleviating intergenerational poverty through economic development and coordination of education and social services at the grassroots level. St. Ignatius addressed these same issues. Thus, my learning and being among the Jesuits has affirmed for me that my life’s work has been about doing the will of our Father in Heaven.”
Mrs. Jolley’s first encounter with a Jesuit in 1970 changed her life forever. As associate director of government relations for the American Vocational Association, she traveled from her home in Washington, D.C., to Lafayette, Louisiana, to speak to a group of teachers. While there, her host, Dr. Margaret Jolley, a professor at Nicholls State University, introduced Mary to her brother. Homer Richard Jolley was a former Jesuit, then working for the U.S. Medicaid Program. It could be said the meeting went well: They were married two years later, after Dick received dispensation of his Holy Orders and Mary had converted to Catholicism.
During the years following Vatican II, many former Jesuits sought ways to continue in relationship. “Dick and I happily joined in and attended meetings of former Jesuits in Baltimore and Washington,” Mary said. “New friendships were made, and old friends reunited. One of the great blessings of my life has been to know many Jesuits over the last 50 years.”
Mary and Dick were married for almost 30 years. They shared a strong belief that the work Jesuits do is much needed, and they wanted to help provide support for the entire mission of the Jesuits.
“Dick and I decided early in our marriage that we wanted to support the Jesuits financially as much as possible,” Mary said, adding that they both felt deep gratitude for the education the Jesuits had provided for Dick.
After Dick’s death, Mary met with Fr. Warren Broussard, SJ, who was serving as director of the Jesuit Spirituality Center (JSC) in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. “I wanted to attend a retreat, and I also wanted to make my own personal judgment about what I might do to honor Dick’s memory.”
She chose to contribute generously to the renovation of St. Charles College, home to the JSC. “Over the years, we tried to provide consistent support, with a final payment to be made upon my death,” Mary said.
She has since attended many retreats and has served on the JSC’s lay advisory board.
“Attending retreats has made a real difference in my life; I still review my journals when I need to be reminded of God’s purpose in my life,” Mary, now 95, said. “I still feel the joy of life-changing experiences that I recorded at the time. Lately, I have been reading one journal in which retired Jesuits reflected on their lived experiences and how they felt about their years of service.”
Mary puts into practice the Jesuit values she has learned by attending retreats and reading books by Jesuit authors. “I remember each day to find time for silence and reflection and to set aside a place in my home as a sacred space,” she said. “The tools I value most are the Daily Examen and seeking to practice the virtues of integrity, courage, love, forgiveness, hope, healing, service and justice. Discernment has played a significant role in my life.”
On one of her retreats at Grand Coteau, she met Fr. Brian Zinnamon, SJ, who had just completed a community feasibility study to determine if a Cristo Rey school might succeed in Birmingham, Alabama. When the school opened, Mary was invited to serve on the board of directors. She also served on the advisory board of the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“This was a great opportunity for me to learn more about the capacity of the Catholic Church to minister to the needs ‘of the least of these,’” said Mary, an area of particular interest to her.
Mary has been impressed by the principles of leadership exemplified by Jesuits and sought ways to incorporate them into her community development work as she was trying to help develop leaders in some of the small towns in Alabama that were economically depressed. She read Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, a book about the Society of Jesus by Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit.
“I decided that I could take those principles of leadership, as defined by Lowney, and incorporate them into developing community leaders,” Mary said. She then reached out to Fr. Joseph Tetlow, SJ, who encouraged her project. “He gave me ideas that I passed along to a grassroots organization trying to prevent a waste dump from coming into their community.”
Mary is now a member of the Ignatian Heritage Society, the group of donors who’ve informed the province that they have included the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province in their estate plans. She is much loved and much appreciated, not only for her generosity over the years, but for her own advocacy and support for people on the margins. She is a true companion in the Jesuit mission.
Mary Jolley has just completed a book entitled Accidental Activist, a Memoir, slated for publication by Livingston Press, University of West Alabama.
Rosalie Tomeny is a major gifts officer for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. You can reach her at email@example.com. Learn more about ways to support the Society of Jesus at jesuitscentralsouthern.giftlegacy.com.