A Story I Heard

If you visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. some 30 years ago, you would often see an old nun there. She walked slowly up and down the aisles or knelt in front of the rows of votive candles. She wore the habit of earlier generations: a long black robe that swept the floor, a black veil with a white band framing her face, and a leather belt with a rosary hanging from it.

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But Mary Hardy was no nun; she was a homeless woman who spent most of her time at the Shrine—which was ironic, because she didn’t really like it much. She thought it represented the modern Church, which she hated, even though the building began construction in 1920 and was finished in 1959, long before the changes of the Second Vatican Council.

For Mary, the real Church had died many years ago, long before Vatican II. She didn’t even like Pope Pius X, who condemned Modernism. She believed the Apostolic Succession was lost with Pius VII, who was pope from 1800 to 1823.

But she spent her days at the Shrine, partly to fill her empty hours and partly as a receptacle for her hate. During a period of bomb scares throughout the city, she predicted that one would fall on the Shrine’s blue dome and blow it into a thousand pieces. The only part of the building she liked, for some reason, was the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Mary hated all the people who worked at the Shrine, too, seeing them as part of the illegitimate Church that had replaced the one of her childhood. She used to tell the archivist that he was possessed by the devil, because his eyes were too close together and because he looked Irish. “You’re crazy, Mary Hardy,” he finally told her one day, after a long time of trying to be patient and compassionate. “But you can’t prove it,” she retorted with glee.

Perhaps out of disappointment that no bomb ever fell on the Shrine, Mary turned to theft. She began taking money out of the votive candle boxes, using a stick topped with a wad of chewing gum. She could get $30 out of the boxes in as many seconds. This went on for months before Shrine employees realized what was happening.

After she was caught, the staff there did try to help her, but were always frustrated. They found places for her to stay, but she always ended up arguing with the people she lived with and leaving. She was finally banned. And the Washington Post picked up on the story and ran this headline: “Old Woman, Shrine Volunteer for 11 Years, Arrested by Staff for taking Pennies from Votive Box.”

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