They called her ‘Sr. Mary’

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It sounds like something you'd read in a novel: Concert pianist falls in love at first sight with Episcopalian priest who proposes on second date; couple marry, uproot and dedicate their lives to serving the poor in inner-city Washington, D.C.

But this is no bestseller - at least not yet - and the 52-year-old protagonist, instead of being fictional, lives off a dirt drive in Culpeper, just 72 miles from the streets where she spent 22 years in ministry.

Mary Lyman Jackson's story is one of adventure, of hope and of love. It's a story of saving and being saved. And, more than anything, it's a story filled with chapter after chapter of deep faith.

A Southern start

Photographs hang like personalized wallpaper in Mary's large country home off U.S. Route 29. The former president and CEO of Exodus Youth Services, Inc., has a tangible memory of seemingly everything: the apron signed by Julia Child for her mother; a program from the funeral of a friend; banners carried during her days working with the poor in the nation's capital.

Mary's southern upbringing - she was born in Savannah, Ga. - dictates that she offer any visitor a bite to eat, and the fresh gingerbread hints at her skills as a gourmet cook, a talent passed down from her adoptive mother. Mary was the oldest of her parents' four children, and the arts - especially the piano - took center stage in her life at an early age. Mary's natural talent on the keyboard ensured that the instrument would be defining in her life.

"(The piano) was my experience of God," said Mary, a Catholic convert who was raised Episcopalian. "If you can play anything you can hear, you know there's something much more powerful in life than you."

En route to a career as a concert pianist, Mary pursued her love of the ivory keys at Chatham Hall Boarding School in Chatham, Va., followed by Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Her big plans screeched to a halt, however, when she met Logan Jackson, an Episcopalian priest, and fell instantaneously in love. Mary at once gave up her musical ambition in favor of a vocation as a wife and mother in a country parish outside Louisville, Ky.

But a quiet life was not what God had in store for the couple. After the birth of three children - Mercer, Kemper and Walter - Mary and Logan received similar "visions" from God telling them in no uncertain terms that they must begin ministering to the poor.

"God spoke to (Logan) and gave him a vision of helping poor children," Mary said. "At the same time God had given me a vision of children in pain."

Within a week the couple, their three children and their nine dogs had "up and left" their comfortable parish life in search of a new, uncertain one.

An Exodus

In 1985, the family moved to Washington, D.C., and Mary and Logan began developing Exodus. Without a clue as to what they were doing, the couple hit the streets, looking for the materially and spiritually poor in the personas of runaways, abandoned children, gang members, AIDS victims - you name it.

They purchased a big house off of Military Road in Washington that became headquarters for their ministry.

"It was just the two of us," Mary said. "We went to the poorest places; we went to the most dangerous places. We were so eager to accept God's call, to seek His kingdom first. We believed that God would take care of us."

In 1989, though, things changed dramatically when Logan was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"He literally in a couple of months went from being a jock to (being) paralyzed from the neck down," Mary said. She cared for him full time, even bringing him on the streets in a wheelchair. At the same time, she cared for her daughter, Kemper, who had been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus.

With Logan's diagnosis, Mary's role in Exodus became increasingly pronounced. She stopped teaching at the Washington Conservatory of Music and stopped instructing 26 private students.

"I gave it up and worked full time for the ministry," she said, though it was not without reluctance. "God had to work in my life. He had to show me that the first shall be last, the last shall be first, and to really be a true leader you have to serve."

Logan died in June 1993, one year after the entire family converted to Catholicism.

"I didn't know how I was going to go on," Mary said. "I prayed all the time. God really took care of me."

A new beginning

Drowning in sorrow after Logan's death, Mary said it was the people on the streets whom she was trying to save that ended up saving her. These homeless and poor were not her clients, but her friends, her family. They told their "Sister Mary" that it was time to pick herself up and get back to work.

For the next 14 years Mary raised her children and continued to work on the streets of Washington, attracting widespread attention. Those in the ministry trained more than 37,000 volunteers to assist in Exodus' four-part mission of evangelization, catechesis, prayer and social outreach. Once Exodus had helped more than 20,000 of the "poorest of the poor," Mary said they stopped counting.

Paulist Father Bruce Nieli, who served with Mary for three years, referred to her as a modern-day St. Paul.

"She really has a universal sense of devotion of sensitivity and hospitality," Father Nieli said. "Like St. Paul she is able to reach out to different cultures, different ethnic groups, different lifestyles and to make them all feel at home in Christ."

Mary found her way back to the piano, composing and recording five pieces for her CD "The Joyful Mysteries." The music seems to flow directly from her heart into the listener's soul and each track is dedicated to a different family member.

The next chapter

In 2007, Exodus shut down due to increasingly dangerous conditions. Unable to turn to her piano because of a car accident that resulted in a permanent wrist injury, Mary has instead begun to write her life story - what she hopes will be an instrument with which to teach.

"It's what God wants me to do now," she said.

The book is in the works, but Mary is fighting the clock. She recently was diagnosed with a terminal case of scleroderma, a disease that hardens the skin. Having watched Logan die, however, she is no longer afraid of passing from this life into the next.

"When he died I knew heaven was for real because part of me is up there with him," Mary said. "I am not afraid of death now. I see it can be peaceful."

She now writes for hours a day, working on the memoir that she called "a testimony of joy and faith and love in the midst of suffering."

Without a doubt, Mary's life has been filled with suffering. As Father Nieli said: "She's embraced the cross."

But because she has had the love of her family and God, Mary has no regrets.

"I have a full life because I have been given this deep knowledge that Jesus loves me," she said. "And knowing that Jesus loves you, you really don't need anything else."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009