By Walter Wells
It was to be a temporary job, six months as interim priest assisting Dean Lucinda Laird while the discernment process found a new Canon. Without making a big issue out of it, the search committee screened male applicants with high hopes. Not out of sexism, but a perception that the parish would benefit from priests of both genders.
Still, the experience of the previous year, when Lucinda and Liz Hendrick comprised the clergy, had rent neither altarpiece nor parish. And the idea of looking primarily for a male priest did indeed seem the sort of antediluvian paradox that only the church wouldpermit.
And so, sometime in late spring, Mary Haddad came to Lucinda. “If you’re going to seriously consider women candidates for the job, then put my name in,” she said. “I have fallen in love with the people, the work and the city and this feels like the right fit.” And indeed it was.
The Reverend Mary Elizabeth Haddad, Canadian by birth, priest seemingly by chance and dynamic even when leading meditation, accepted the call, and another unexpected chapter opened in a life that seems to be marked by coincidence and serendipity.
The trail that led her to the priesthood began with the global economic downturn of the 80s, which hit communications companies harder than most. Mary, a communications graduate of the University of Windsor, had worked as an assistant television producer for Canadian Broadcasting in Windsor, Ontario, Detroit’s neighbor across the river. To cope with failing revenues, the CBC took a path that most media companies have followed since. Mary was among those who lost their jobs.
The next landing was easy enough. She joined the staff of the University of Windsor School of Music as concert manager and publicist. Three years there, and then something unexpected: She became a restaurant owner. A favorite soup and sandwich shop whose specialty was pâtés was on the market – the French woman who owned it was going back home to Lyon. Another three years later, Mary’s advice about owning restaurants was “Don’t do it – just invite your friends to dinner.”
Broke and out of work again, she headed across the straight to Detroit and became a sales star at a Toyota dealership. She was a natural, and the experience was invaluable. “Everything I know about being a priest I learned selling cars.” It sounds provocative (would you buy a timeworn religion from this priest?) So she explains: “It’s all about connection and communication. If you can’t connect with the buyer, if you can’t communicate with them, then you won’t make a sale.” It’s understood that you could substitute “parishioner” or another word from the glossary of the faithful and her point would be the same.
After a year and a half and a lot of earnings success – salesperson of the month, salesperson of the year in 1992 – she had a conversion experience during Eucharist at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, in the Detroit suburbs.
Conversion? She insists on the word. “I was a nominal Christian, an Anglican. But something happened at that altar. And I will never forget the way the priest pressed the bread into my palm.” And what happened next was another move, but more in the spiritual direction that the Holy Spirit was pushing her. Through friends in Beverly Hills she landed there as verger at All Saints Church. “I was really the sexton,” She said. “I cleaned the church.”
In less than the fullness of time she was also preaching. The verger-sexton-preacher. We’ve heard her sermons from our pulpit. Perhaps we have heard her also from some of the sermons that are online. If we’ve heard her, we know how logical it was for the verger to take to the pulpit. As the Toyota sales manager told her in Detroit, she’s a natural. I think of hers as a voice of our age as well as for it. It’s a voice that reflects experience and that communicates through irony and edgy humor, often self-deprecating. But there’s an eloquent point to the sermons. She closes the deal, she makes the sale.
After Beverly Hills came seminary, at General in New York. And the rest of her career as a priest consists of postings and positions that surprise less than pâté chef or auto sales dynamo.
Readers who follow Bishop Whalon on Facebook, and parishioners who tuned into the BBC interviews after the terrorist attacks in Paris, will have noted the coincidence of Mary’s presence at Trinity Wall Street when the planes struck the twin towers and her presence in Paris at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. She was not that close geographically to the events here. She observed no confetti swirling in the sky or billowing clouds of smoke, as there had been over lower Manhattan. But her emotions were overwhelming as she relived those endless New York minutes.
There’s another coincidence that involved death. Her father was killed when a freak tornado struck in Windsor. She was 20 at the time, and it was a traumatic first experience with the randomness of life and a huge confrontation with loss. As caregiver to her mother in recent years, she felt she had, in a sense, taken her father’s place, and thus was doing something intense for both of her parents.
Her father was a grocer, and her ethnic background is Lebanese and Syrian. “I grew up very tribal, very Mediterranean. Family was at the center of everything.” She has a brother who is a lawyer in Toronto and their mother lives with him and his partner, who is an artist. “Negotiating care for an elderly parent is a challenging family situation,” she said.
Her mother is now 94, and was well enough to come to Paris in August. Mary is hoping to arrange another visit for her soon.
Because she expected to care for her mother until the end of her life, the Paris decision was especially difficult. But once again, there was a call from the Holy Spirit and a response that brings her outside the future she had charted.
When Mary arrived in Paris she said she had no agenda except to help Lucinda. “I want to bring whatever health I can to keep the place thriving,” she said then. And now? “My impulse is really the same, to bring health to the cathedral and to help it thrive and to do that thing in life where you leave a place better off than how you found it. Now I’ve got more than six months to do that. In Paris.”
Mary’s title will be Cathedral Canon, to suggest the breadth of the role she expects to fulfill. At her installation on October 11, Lucinda surprised the congregation by invitingthe former Canon Pastor, Elizabeth Hendrick, to preach. It was Liz’s first return to the Cathedral since leaving nearly a year earlier to become rector of St. Matthews Parish near Atlanta.