Mary McHale retired in 2009 after nearly forty years of volunteering at the Sancta Maria House, an all-women’s homeless shelter founded in the South End in 1972. She is still remembered fondly by many of the women whom she helped over the years. In McHale’s words, “I have friends from my old days that are still glad to see me, and they write and call for Mother’s Day. To this day I’m still hearing from some of them.”
McHale is truly one of the great citizens of Boston. She is an inspiring woman purely driven by her faith. Sancta Maria House started with a $10,000 donation, a smattering of smaller gifts and five women from the Legion of Mary who wanted to help women who had fallen on hard times.
McHale was raised to help those who could not help themselves. In her words, “We were always taught to help anyone we could.” Helping others was instilled in McHale at a young age, and these lessons helped to shape the kind nature of her heart. Her kind and dedicated heart drove McHale to work relentlessly for the homeless women of Boston.
Unable to get help, many of these women would drink all night in the bars of the South End and downtown Boston. In the early 1970s, McHale and the other members of the Legion of Mary would go into bars to speak with these women. Whenever they arrived at one bar, McHale said, “The bartender yelled out ‘two cokes for the Legion of Mary!’ But this was good because many of the women that needed help would know we were there.”
The neighborhoods where McHale and the other Legion of Mary women were working could be perilous. As McHale said, “Sometimes there was people murdered in the barrooms we’d just come out of. Things like that were going on, and we knew that. But we went and did our assignments every week just the same.”
When asked if she was ever afraid, McHale said no because, “We knew the Lord was taking care of us.”
If there were women at the bar that needed a warm place to spend the night, she would take them to City Hospital. I asked her how she was allowed to do this if the women weren’t physically ill. McHale responded by saying “when we did do this, we would pray that the security guard we knew was there. He would let us get away with it.”
McHale showed her dedication to the city of Boston by volunteering for 40 years and only missing an hour and a half at the shelter. Combined with working at John Hancock for 39 years, McHale proved herself to be an exceptionally resilient woman. In her words, “I could do 45 nights without a night off because I never tired. When we were short on volunteers, I would do extra nights.” McHale once worked for seven weeks straight overnight at the shelter, with no break.
When she retired from John Hancock in 1995, she was able to put even more time and effort into the Sancta Maria House. When asked how she could work so much without becoming exhausted, she replied: “I always enjoyed the women, and I was grateful for being able to be with them, so it didn’t wear me out.”
When the stock market crashed in 2008, McHale noticed an increase in the amount of women coming to the shelter. It broke McHale’s heart to know that not everyone could get help. “It’s worse because there are so many more women needing the services now. When we started we had a few alcoholics, now there’s professional women who lose their jobs and can’t pay their rent, so they have to go to shelters.”
It upsets her that even today people cannot or will not lend a helping hand to a person in need. Although she recognizes that she might not have the ability to end homelessness on her own, she believes that everyone can help. As she said, “Oh you just do what you can to help the cause. You can’t take care of everything as it should be taken care of, but you’re doing something to help overcome the main cause of it.”
All McHale ever wanted was for people to help one another.