This is part of our mini series on relaunching in religion, whether in the clergy, in a non-clergy role as part of spiritual life, or in an administrative role within a place of worship.
Pioneering relauncher Mary Ann McLaughlin worked for over 40 years at the Office of Spiritual Development within the Archdiocese of Boston, which is the fourth largest archdiocese in the United States. After starting her career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools, Mary Ann was forced to leave when she was pregnant with her first child (yes, those were the rules in the 60's). She had five more children over the ensuing 16 years and returned to work in 1981, over two decades before anyone was talking about relaunching. We are honored to hear about her journey, including the important roles that volunteering and family support had on her relaunch and incredible career, and how she's still really working even though she's technically retired.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today we welcome Mary Ann McLaughlin. Pioneering relauncher Mary Ann McLaughlin worked for over forty years at the Office of Spiritual Development within the Archdiocese of Boston, which is the fourth largest archdiocese in the United States and the spiritual home for more than 1.8 million Catholics.
We are speaking with Mary Ann as part of our mini series on relaunching in religion, whether in the clergy, in a non-clergy role as part of spiritual life, or in an administrative role within a place of worship. After starting her career as a teacher in the Boston public schools, Mary Ann was forced to leave when she was pregnant with her first child. Yes, those were the rules in the sixties.
She had five more children over the ensuing sixteen years and returned to work in 1981, over two decades before anyone was talking about relaunching. It's an honor to speak with her today about her incredible career and pioneering relaunch, and how she's still really working, even though she's technically retired.
Mary Ann, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Thank you, Carol. I'm delighted to be here and look forward to our conversation today.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Me too. And let's start by talking about the early part of your career and career break. So you returned in 1981, and that does make you a pioneering relauncher because you relaunched your career decades before relaunching careers was discussed as a topic. And before the return to work programs that we now see at companies and at other institutions, can you please walk us through your early career as a teacher, and then what led to your career break?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: I finished my studies at Boston College in the School of Education, and I graduated on the first Saturday in June, 1964. Tom and I were married on the last Saturday of June, and I began teaching. I was hired for the city of Boston. I began teaching at The Prince School that September. Now my career was a short one because within that year I became pregnant and I was very delighted with my husband to be welcoming our first child.
However, in the city of Boston and many other school systems, you could not teach when you were pregnant. And so while we were close to the end of that first year I got sick one day at school and had to be taken to the hospital, and it became apparent that I was pregnant. So I left in May and I was not able to return.
I was on maternity leave for about nine years and at the end of nine years, that's the way it was in those days. At the end of nine years, I realized that this is probably not going to happen, me going back to teaching. Because at time I had seven pregnancies and we had one miscarriage and lost that baby.
And then our children were spread out over 10 years. And so we always had a little one and always had something going on, which was incredible. So I put aside my thoughts, but periodically I would look into what it would cost to have childcare and me go back even part time, and realized that I would have to make more money to pay the person who was doing the childcare than I was making myself. That put it on hold in a more permanent way.
Carol Fishman Cohen: It's so hard to believe that there were these rules that you can't teach if you're pregnant, but that was just a sign of the times. So you had six children, you were home with them, you were trying to figure out if there was any way you could go back to work, but the childcare costs with all of them just made it prohibitive. At what point did you think that it was finally feasible, and how old were your kids, and what steps did you take at that point to relaunch your career?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: I have to say that it moved slowly. And one of the things, a choice that Tom and I made was that we decided to send our children to the local parish school, so they were attending the Catholic school in our neighborhood. And we had a new principal and the principal invited the parents to take part in the school in a way that had not happened before. She wanted to begin a home and school type of group. She wanted us to do things with the parents, like retreats and days of prayer. And she also wanted us to have a parish show, and to have all the kids involved in it. Well, to make a long story short, that was probably the beginning of my kind of going beyond what was happening here, and organizing programs like painting the school, basic things like that, organizing the home and school association. But at one point she did two things. She asked Tom and I to make a cursillo. It's a Spanish word, and it's appropriate that it came out of Majorca in Spain in the Catholic church in the forties.
And it was basically to help people in Majorca renew their faith after some very difficult years of war. It had traveled to the United States in the fifties, and then into the sixties. And she had taken part in it and invited us to make a weekend. The first thing I said was, "Oh, I can't do that, I've got all these kids." To go off for a weekend, it turned out one of the other sisters who taught at the school said she would help us. My husband then decided he would make the cursillo weekend, because the man had to go first, which is very interesting. So my husband went first and there was a genius in that, I would say.
And then when he came home, he was all in. He thought this was phenomenal. And then I went. This was the lead in because it involved our whole family. As time went on the children saw that we were both going and we were coming back and telling them about what we had learned and asking them to pray for us while we did these things.
And then the sister, Julie Dunphy was her name, she invited me then to do little mini retreats for the parents. Now I wasn't directing the retreat, I was organizing it. I was organizing from the cursillo. One of the priests would come and do a morning of prayer in Brookline at another little, I think there was a religious community up there that let us use their chapel and the house. And so that was the entree.
I was also invited to be on the team. And my husband was on the team. The men went on one weekend, the women, another. And so again, both of us were doing these little forays into A.) Learning about our faith in an adult way, and B.) also being away from the children. And other people came in and helped us, really came and visited on the weekend. There was a community of Franciscan sisters from Mount Alvernia Academy who had a convent in the neighborhood and offered to come, and watch the kids and help out in any way.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So I think that's really fascinating on two levels. First of all, you were doing all this as a volunteer, right?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Oh yeah.
Carol Fishman Cohen: We call this now strategic volunteering, when you're doing volunteer work that is in line with your career goals. But at the time, the way you're describing it, it wasn't really part of any grand strategy that you were going to volunteer first and then end up in some sort of a paid role within the Catholic church.
But it sounds like it was the first steps that led toward it. So that's one thing that's jumping out.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Let me say one thing about the grand strategy. I hear what you're saying and you're absolutely right. I don't think I had a clue about a strategy at that point. I do think there's something called grace. The amazing grace, where somehow God prepares you, invites you, challenges you into a world that you probably never would have gone into. I'm a very quiet person. I'm very reserved. And I was drawn into this leaving home. I know it sounds crazy. It was down the street, it opened places in me that weren't ready to go that way.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. The other comment that you made about having one of the sisters or like someone else come in and take care of the kids while you or your husband were, I didn't know at one point, if it was even both of you, but while you were going on these retreats, or you were doing something outside the home, was getting them used to this idea of having other people around in the mix.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: And I'd have to say they loved it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. So that, so I love that, that it was a super positive experience. They say it takes a village, and you had a whole mix of different people, and it was, I don't want to say an extended family, but it feels like that a little bit.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Very much.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So what talking about here is family life that sounds like it was already fundamentally intertwined with Catholic church and the Catholic religion. And is that how you would describe it in general or was that something that again happened more over time?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: It was happening over time. We were people who were believers. We are people who are believers and our faith has always given us a lens with which to look at the world and to be supported in our own struggles. Around this time, my father was a principal in one of our schools in Boston.
My parents were just genuinely good people. And my mother had been diagnosed with cancer around this time as well, but my dad had been beaten in the school on the last day of school, and ended up in the hospital, and ended up with long range brain damage which lasted a very long time, but that at the same time opened our doors even more so.
Cursillo gave me a place where, on the cursillo team during a weekend, I was able to talk about the experience of, like I had never seen man's inhumanity to man, just in my mind, you can't put your head around it. And in that it was a very horrifying experience. He would live, I think it was almost twelve years after that.
And he lived with us for a period of time. My mother died during that time afterwards, after going through 14 months of her experience with cancer. So it all, it was like an avalanche where I had been in a bubble, I think, of knowing the suffering that people go through in day-to-day living. And then here it was. And we had to face it upfront. And again, family, my brother was a tremendous support through all of that, I hope I was the same kind of support.
There were just the two of us and we did everything in our power to keep dad at home, but there came a time where it was impossible. I had six kids. Eileen was born during that time. And I remember at one point tying the door closed because he would go out at night. If he woke up, he would just get up and go out. And I would end up tying the door shut and realizing I had a baby upstairs. So all of that was happening. And it was at the same time we were going out, we were being pulled back in.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thank you for sharing that personal trauma that went on with your father and your mother dying around the same time, and the role religion played during that time for you. I do need to mention, I didn't mention this at the beginning, Mary Ann mentioned Eileen, who's the youngest of her six children, and our family is very connected with Eileen because when she was in college, she used to babysit for our children. And then later as she became more and more of a leader herself in education, she was still connected with our family and coming in and almost working more as a tutor for a while. Until finally she got so senior that we decided it was time for her to move on. But we were very close and also that's how Mary Ann and I got connected. So very special, wonderful feelings there and connections.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: And a real blessing. Carol, I just want to say.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you, it was a blessing for us too in so many ways. So let's talk about your relaunch. So you're very active in these specific volunteer roles that had to do at your kid's school at the church more broadly, when did this actually turn into something that became paid work, and what was the work?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Because of the cursillo and because of the cursillo teams that I participated in on a volunteer basis, I was introduced during one of those weekends on a break time to a newly named bishop, his name was Bishop John Darcy. He had just been made bishop and he was called the Vicar for Spirituality in the diocese.
And the day that I met him, I was introduced by Father Connie McCray, who was the director along with Father Jack McCormick of the cursillo movement in the diocese. So I was introduced to Bishop Darcy in the hallway. It was a casual conversation, but that doesn't usually happen. And then again, and again, two other times he had a conversation with me where he called and sat down and said, "This is where I'm going, and I'm just thinking, would you ever be interested in doing something, literally doing something with us? I know you're prepared to be a teacher and I know you work in cursillo, and I know that you were active in your parish." So I said, "Sure." I lived down the street and what could it be?
Nobody talked about money. Nobody talked about what I would be doing, it would be doing something. And as time went on he had hired Sister Helen Cornelia and some other sisters to work with him in setting up this office. And there were other priests in the diocese that he brought in. So it was brand new.
Then I was called to the office one day. And again, I'm not doing anything other than volunteering work. And he said to me, "I'm going to be hiring a cross section, my dream is that this office would be lay people, priests, deacons." And the diaconate was just being called up again in a new way to be active in the diocese, so sisters, just a cross section of people. "Do you want to be a lay person who would work in this office alongside the other people from the diocese?" And I said, "Fascinating and I love something new." So I said, "What is it going to be?"
It was going to be doing retreats, days of prayer, missions, there'd be like five nights and each night there would be a different topic, and one night it would be a priest, another night it would be a sister, or another night it would be a lay person. I might do the last night. And so he had a mixture of people. It sounded remarkable to me, but I don't like to talk.
This was a major issue for me. I said, "I'm not sure I'm good at that." What he did was, he told me to take a mini course that he was offering for people, religious, lay, deacon, et cetera, just to see how I felt about it and to meet with the homiletics instructor down at the seminary. At the end of one of those courses where we were asked to write a little paper, just one or two pages, and then I would deliver it to the woman at the seminary who was the homiletics instructor.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait, hold on. Mary Ann, what is homiletics? Can you define that for our audience please?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: The homiletics instructor at the seminary is very particular to the work of the priest in training, who was a seminarian. So they spend a good amount of time helping men who come to the seminary and are going to be preaching the word of God in their parishes to learn how to preach and to learn how to put together a homily that would benefit the parish. So this woman's job was not to take care of people like me. I don't even know that she had expected this to happen, but God bless her.
I walked in one day with my paper and whatever possessed me is beyond me right now. I stood at the front of the room and she recorded me. And at the end, she said to me, "Now we're going to watch, and I'm going to show you, and I want you to listen to where your voice goes up and your voice goes down." I had forgotten my Bible, and I said, "I don't know what to do because I have forgotten my Bible." She said, "Tell the story rather than read the story." And I did. And the two things she said to me that day was, "Watch yourself do this and I'll point out the places where you need to make some adjustments. And the other thing is don't ever read the story, tell the story because we all love a good story."
And do you know why I told a good story?
Carol Fishman Cohen: Why?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: My children.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, of course.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Do you love that?
Carol Fishman Cohen: It's great. So she is like a speech coach, like a speech expert, a presentation expert. And this presentation was almost like a secret way of getting you to prep. And then it feels like using that magic phrase "storytelling," and then you're able to relate that to storytelling with your kids. It's all coming together.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: And I do feel that she probably wasn't sure what I was going to be doing this for or where I was going to be doing it. But all along the way in a world in which this shouldn't be happening, I met people who reached out to me and literally helped me be what I did not know I could be.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. And also, it seems like when you're describing the job, aside from the presentation piece of it, the need to do some sort of public speaking, they were describing essentially a paid version of what you were already doing as a volunteer.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Yes. As a matter of fact, there was a time when I was stuffing envelopes, and a woman who was volunteering with me said, "I gave up a day's pay to do this."
And the person who was in charge of it said, "I should pay you the money that you're losing." And that was the only time that I had a little thought in my head where you can get paid for something like this. It was like you begin to think differently. And yet money was never a major concern in my going back.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So when you're talking about these early conversations and this office is being formed, did they actually say it was called the Office of Spiritual Development, or did that sort of come later when it was all put together?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Well, it was opened as the Office of Spiritual Development. So it was an office that was to help parishes become more and more aware in a personal way, individuals who belong to a parish in a personal way, in their own lifestyle to live their faith. It was after the second Vatican council where your participation in your faith was very real and every day.
And learning how to do that was something brand new, even up in the eighties, it was new. The second Vatican council had happened back in the sixties I think, I'm not good with dates, but then as it went on, it needed to be implemented all around the world. And that was part of what was happening here.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So at what point did they say, "We want you to actually take this job and we're going to pay you?"
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Actually, it was in, let's see, probably 1981. So the conversations happened prior to that, I made my cursillo in 1978, Eileen was 11 months old at that time. And that was huge to be going off on a weekend with an 11 month old baby.
Tom had made his weekend. He lived his weekend just before that. And when he came back, he said, "I will stay home and I will take care of the kids this weekend on my own." And it was really a major deal that he was willing to do that. And it was offered as a prayer, as a sacrifice, as a way that I would be living the weekend and benefiting from it as well.
So it's huge. So when that all happened we were very close to when I would be hired, but I was hired very part-time and I was asked not to do any particular work, but to come in and learn what was unfolding. And one day Bishop Darcy was there, Sister Helen was there, and I could tell this was all very tentative.
They were instituting a little retreat after daily mass. And they said to me, "Would you go out and give a talk every day after mass?" Like a little talk. What's a little talk? Like ten minutes or something like that? And I said, "But I don't have any talk." And they said, "Remember that course you took?" And I said, "The one on prayer?" They said, "Yeah, you did a fine job with that when the homiletics instructor talked to you, so you could do that. And then you could expand on that because I'm sure you have more to say." And I'm thinking, "What?"
But they walked me through it, literally walked me through it and said to me, "We really feel you relate well to people." And they were naming things that I really did not see in myself. I had been bringing up my children and having a good time doing it and volunteering. So I said "yes," and I began my career and made little money. I don't know. I can't even tell you. Can't even tell you. He said to me at one point, "If I could only pay you a religious salary," which I think was next to nothing, "would you be willing to do the work?" And I said, "I would."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Okay. So you ended up being at the Office of Spiritual Development for over forty years. Can you talk to us about how your role evolved over time and how you evolved over time becoming a more comfortable public speaker and I'm guessing taking on more responsibility as the years went on.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Yes, I can tell you that in the beginning, things I would say moved very slowly, but at the same time they moved remarkably well. In the beginning it was, as I told you, there would be retreats, and I'd be sent out to parishes. And there were places who didn't want lay people coming, they preferred to have a religious person. And Bishop Darcy would always call and put in a word for me and other women like myself and other men like myself who were lay people, and he supported what he was asking us to do.
In addition, we were working with Franciscan sisters, Dominican sisters, and the priests in the diocese who are also working, going out on these retreats. Shortly after I was hired and doing the retreats, Darcy sat me down one day and he said, "How do you like the work?" And I said, "Oh, I love the work. I never thought I'd be able to do something like this." I was meeting with parish advisory boards, and I was also doing the retreat work. And he said, "You know something, you've got a good background with scripture. You've got philosophy. You've got ethics. You've got the kind of courses we want you to have when you graduated from BC. However, there's more, and I think if you want to stay in this work and you're good at it, you need to get credentials to work in the church."
And he suggested going to Creighton University. I didn't know what Creighton University was. And I really felt like the floor had gone out from under me because I'm a mother, I can't leave home. It would be a month of summer and it would be three summers or six summers. Three summers would be two months of summer. And one month of summer would mean six years.
So, I never even told Tom that offer was given to me. What I did was I signed up for courses at BC and we were always given the option of sitting in on the courses at the seminary, it was called Minister in the Vicinity, and you would just sit in on the courses, you wouldn't get credit for it. So I did that. And I was praying to God that would give me the credentials. And he said again to me, 'I know what you're doing, but I want you to go to Creighton."
And at that very time, Tom came into the kitchen one day while I was getting dinner, was getting ready for an exam at BC, and Tom said to me, "What the heck are you doing? You're making dinner and you're reading a book." I said, "I have a test tomorrow." And he said, "You should go to some school where you can just study and learn, get a degree if you have to."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's an incredible conversation. Go ahead.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: "Funny thing you mention that, Bishop Darcy had offered to send me to Creighton University," and he knew the Creighton Blue Jays, the basketball team. And he said, "Oh," that's all he said. Our conversation ended, and I thought, "Oh, I'm not going there again." Later Tom came back and he said to me, "Thinking about that Creighton thing, I think you should go."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Just for our audience tell them where Creighton University is.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Omaha, Nebraska, which is a long way from Brighton.
My kids at that age were six, two, sixteen. And Tom said, "I have a job right now where I have seven weeks vacation. I can still take a family vacation and stay home while you're gone for those four weeks, the six year program, and and we'll just see how it goes. Okay?" Now I'll tell ya. I talked to more people before I ever said yes to that, but I went to Creighton for six years.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: A degree in Christian Spirituality, and I got a certificate in Retreat Direction and Spiritual Direction. And at one point Eileen was able to come with me and attend a camp there. It was remarkable.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's quite a story. And actually it brings me to a couple of questions I had about, what were the conversations, I'm hearing the conversations that were going on between you and your husband, Tom, but what were some of the conversations that were going on at home? And even if you think about now when your children are grown, do they remember any of this, and is what they remember different from what the reality was?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: No, it was like a blip on the screen to have their mother gone for four weeks, I think was huge. But I wrote to them, I think we forget, this happened in families centuries ago. And sometimes we have some beautiful letters that come out of that. And so in the four weeks that I was there, I remember standing in front of a phone booth with all the other college kids on campus and I would be calling home maybe two or three times a week. There were no cell phones and I would write, and I would always buy a book about something that I was studying and in the cover to each child, what was happening, and asking them how things were going at home as well. It was a time when I tried to explain before I left what I was doing, brought pictures home, and at one time on our anniversary, Tom flew out, I didn't even know he was coming. His mother came to take care of the kids. And I hear, "Hey lady, happy anniversary." That was exactly what was unfolding. And I asked them the other day and one of them said to me, "You went back to work." And I said, "Yes, I went back to work." And they said, "Do you know it was a blip on the screen?" Honest to God.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's so interesting! I want all of our audience members who are contemplating and worrying about the impact of their relaunch on their kids to hear this, it's really important.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: It's true, I have to say it was bigger in my head and I lamented more about it. And when I look back, kids who understand that you love them, I remember when my mother went back to work, she said, "I'm going to work because I want to know what I can tell you about the world when it's time for you to go back."
So I think I worked the same process with my kids as well. And they cooked, so on days that I'd be going out at night to a parish, I might try to get home and put supper on the table first, but I had recipes like potato chip chicken that they made and they loved. So I took an extra bag of potato chips with the chicken, but it was quite an event and they seemed to like it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's so funny. It's, "Oh, yay. Mom's going out tonight. So we get that really extra great dinner with the potato chips."
Mary Ann McLaughlin: That they cook.
Carol Fishman Cohen: They cooked themselves. So that's great. Love that. So Mary Ann, you are officially retired now after a very full career, but I heard that you're still working in some capacity and I want to know if you can tell us what you're doing now.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: The cursillo that I told you about requires four weekends a year when we're not in a pandemic in a secretariat, and I'm still a member of the secretariat. I still take part every weekend. And I just am really committed to the work of the cursillo movement. During my time, as I progressed in the officer's virtual development. We had new directors, Bishop John Dooher came after Bishop Darcy and Sister Helen Cornelia, and then Father John Sassani was a major turning point in the life of the office.
Two things happened in his time there, he and I began putting together the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, Loyola, a 19th annotation program that could be done by ordinary lay people. So we had to publish it, self-publish it. And so we've been leading that for twenty-six years and Father John died two years ago. And so I'm still doing that, and that's twenty-four weeks during the year. Out of that came another program called Meeting Christ in Prayer, which is a week version of that, that the diocese used for the year 2000. And then in addition, there is a lay formation program at St. John's seminary that I had the privilege of being on the original committee that established that program for laity.
I still am part of the formation program. I work that during the year on Saturdays. And then I do spiritual direction still, which was part of my life when I was in the office. So just a wonderful opportunity for me to continue. And my family has participated in those programs as well, Tom and also participated.
It's been helpful for us personally.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I just want to comment that you're very modest, but you have been honored and you have an incredible reputation for your leadership during the time that you were in the Office of Spiritual Life, and even now. So I just want to say that to our audience, because I think you're too modest to say that about yourself.
I feel so privileged to be having this conversation with you. Mary Ann, I want to wrap up by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for a relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?
Mary Ann McLaughlin: Well, I do think having the credentials, and that is not probably a good term to use, but taking a look, even if you're going back into the similar work that you did earlier on, I think going back and rooting yourself in whatever it is that's new about that. For me, my own fear of going back and learning something new, something that wasn't ordinary for a lay person in the Catholic church, but there were so many helps along the way. And the last thing I can say is, prayer. Believing that there's something out there much bigger than you and asking for what I would call the grace to be able to do what is best, not only for yourself, but for others in the world.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you so much for ending on that note and Mary Ann, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mary Ann McLaughlin: I'm happy to be here. It was a delight.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.
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