MARY COOKSON Oct. 4, 1943-May 9, 2022

Christ in the clever disguise of a cook

Mary “Ma” Cookson was a legend. She was, in a very real sense, the matriarch for a great many years to the many haggard spirits who came in search of a hot meal served with kindness and hospitality at the St. John’s Breadline in Springfield. Working as a cook at a soup kitchen was no ordinary job, given all the hardships that those coming in were experiencing in life. To get a sense of who this woman was, try to imagine someone who was a wonderful combination of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ma Kettle from the old MGM movies of the 1940s.

Coming from a life on the farm in Spirit Lake, Iowa, it’s as if she took on the role of Milly, the feisty bride from the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The Breadline, as it was called for short, had a sort of boarding house feel to it, with all kinds of people streaming in to get a hot meal.

When asked what was for lunch or dinner, Mary would often bark out, “Hunter stew!” which meant that it would be comprised of whatever she could hunt for and put in the kettle. This in no way indicated that her soup was wanting, either. Mary did have a good handle on how to manage the intense flow of food coming in each day and being served out. Sometimes we likened the day’s meal to deep-sea fishing, because we wouldn’t know what was going to be on the serving line until we opened the proverbial nets to see the catch.

Mary made and served up thousands of meals with as much love as could be infused into such a hard place. Indeed, the old St. John’s Breadline located at 230 N. Sixth Street (the northeast corner at Madison Avenue where the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum now sits) had many previous lives, including being the Coconut Grove Night Club in the 1920s.

When I began work as supervisor of St. John’s Breadline in December 1993, Mary led me up the long flight of stairs to my office that had bright key lime green-painted walls with Oz-green shag carpeting. I was told that this was the Madame’s office, with dancing taking place on the main floor and gambling and other sundry and shady pastimes occurring in the basement.

In this mean setting, grace burst through the cracks because of Mary’s great love and compassion that she held for the guests, a name that emerged from a radical sense of hospitality that we all sought to embrace and that which Mary embodied. As a result, Mary’s presence helped to transform that place into one of hope amid the human degradation of homelessness, addiction, street violence, despair and loss. At a deep level, everyone wants to be acknowledged and valued, and Mary’s heart held a great capacity for all who came our way.

Part of her ability to bring this about was the way she could make people laugh. Once on a gloomy, wet and cold day when spirits were low, I gave Mary a little piece of paper and asked her to make an announcement. Quickly scanning the note, she smiled as she picked up on the humor and announced with her usual commanding and husky voice: “Excuse me everyone, I’m looking for someone...I’m looking for Amanda...Huggin...kis. I need A-man-to-hug-and-kiss!” One burly guy in the dining room stood up and shouted back, “Over here, Mary...I’ll give ya a man to hug and kiss!” The place broke into laughter and the day was better for it, for Mary being there.

Mary truly was Christ in the clever disguise of a cook. She was a mother when the guests needed one, which meant she was disciplinarian, encourager and yes, a hugger when one was needed. She was a true leader in terms of welcoming a myriad of volunteers and would step out of the kitchen to stand near the awaiting guests by the entrance to offer an opening meal prayer. In fact, she would often end her prayers with, “and let us serve these as you deserve,” which is actually a powerful twist on the great Prayer for Generosity of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This deep sense of faith that Mary possessed and manifested was spoken with the command of a jovial bishop or the beloved mayor of a town.

So, God bless you, Mary. I see you seated at an exquisite banquet table where Jesus would wash your feet and wait on you, given how much you served Him on this side of eternity. I can see Him filling your glass, with the other hand on your shoulder, whispering from behind, “Well done my good and faithful servant, welcome home.”

Dan Frachey is a spiritual director and owner of Legacy Weavers Video, which allows him the privilege and joy of commemorating people’s life stories by creating beautiful visual memories that serve as legacy gifts to one’s family and friends.

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