"...she prayed, out loud and filter-free as she knelt before the stunning five-foot gold mosaic of Our Lady of Perpetual Help"
The thumping of her flip-flops against the chapel floor announced her arrival daily —the same flip-flops I found strewn in the middle of Highway 90 the day after she was killed by an oncoming car a year ago. Grace had been riding her bike to our parish church— just as she did every day—to spend the morning moving between the Adoration Chapel and the church before meandering to a nearby cemetery to pray for the souls in Purgatory. She would then ride two blocks to the lakefront to enjoy a Coke and a Twinkie beside Lake Pontchartrain’s murky waters before heading home to her elderly father. Practically everyone in the parish knew about Grace. And her prayerful rituals.
The police said she died instantly upon impact. But the impact she made on our hearts will never die.
The first time I encountered Grace in our little chapel, I was completely taken aback by her disheveled appearance and the days-old grime that was evident on her body and clothing. But what really caught my attention was how Grace prayed, out loud and filter-free as she knelt before the stunning five-foot gold mosaic of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that adorns the chapel’s front wall.
“Mary, you are so beautiful and I’m so ugly,” she mumbled, seemingly unaware that the other adorers in the six-chair chapel could hear her most intimate prayers. “I love you so much, Mary,” she continued. “I don’t have any friends, but you are my friend, Mary…I love you so much.”
My heart raced as I peered unintentionally into Grace’s soul, feeling like a voyeur, wanting to cover my ears. But she continued on, unfazed by those around her. “I’ll be back to visit you this afternoon, Mary. You are so beautiful. I love you so much.”
Then off she went out the chapel door to make her way through the church’s large front wooden doors, where she shuffled up the aisle to Our Lady’s side altar to speak to Mary up close and personally again.
Day after day, I watched that same scene play out, as Grace became a fixture in both the Adoration Chapel and the church. Her daily prayers in adoration became a litany of sorts, always including the familiar refrains: “You’re so beautiful, Mary,” and “I love you so much.”
After a while, I noticed that Grace began to stay in church for Mass, and I could see that she was feeling more at home among our little community of daily Mass-goers who had befriended her. One day, I was prompted by the Lord introduce myself, so I walked up and held out my hand. Standing outside the chapel beside her ever-present blue bike with its plastic-flowered basket, we carried on a conversation for all of ten minutes. From that day on, we were fast friends.
I learned that she lived with her 90-year-old father and that she had two grown children—a son and a daughter. She beamed about the fact that they were great kids, that they both had good jobs and that they always visited her on weekends. She told me that her life had not been easy, as most of it was spent in the now shuttered Southeast Hospital for the Mentally Ill. Moving there as a teen when she “started hearing voices,” Grace remained a resident until the hospital closed its doors a couple of years ago.
I shared that I was a newlywed—that I had been widowed a few years earlier and that I’d met my new husband, Mark, in our Adoration Chapel. I told her about my five children, and asked her to pray for their various struggles. We exchanged a few more of life’s particulars, then I watched as Grace steadied herself on her bike to ride the two blocks to the lakefront. We spoke almost daily after that, but never without her telling me “You look so beautiful today! I love your shirt!” before she asked, “How are your children?”
One day not long before Grace died, she entered the chapel as I sat praying. Kneeling in front of the mosaic of Our Lady she began to pray out loud in her customary style. But this time, what came out of Grace’s mouth nearly knocked me over.
“Thank you Mary for my friends, Mark and Judy,” she began. “They are so cute. I pray that you bless them and give them a happy life,” she went on. “I love you so much, Mary. Please bless my friends, Mark and Judy, and give them a happy life.”
As she prayed, my eyes watered full as I blinked back tears over the holy litanies of God’s beloved daughter, Grace. She considered me a friend, and I had grown to love her, too.
Rest in peace, sweet Grace, I prayed as I wept and buried her pink flip-flops in my courtyard garden, right in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother. Surely, she had been one of Mary’s favorite daughters, and it was my honor to call her friend.