To the baker’s dozen or more of teen and pre–teen girls she supervises each Tuesday evening, “Miss Mary” is mentor, confidante, counselor, confessor, spiritual guide, role model—and friend. And she’s 87 years old.
“She’s the best,” one of the young women says. “I know, because she’s helped me so much.” After three years under Mary’s tutelage at the Clearwater, Fla., Corps, a Salvation Army church, she was recently enrolled as a senior soldier (member).
Major Mary Leidy and her husband, Ralph, were Salvation Army officers who served for more than 45 years; they spent more than two decades as pastors of local corps, where Mary always made young people a priority. Twenty–five of Mary’s protégés from those days went on to become officers themselves.
The Leidys retired in 1991 and continued to be very active in corps life and leadership. When Ralph was promoted to Glory in 2009, Mary was on her own.
“When Ralph died, I just figured I had to do something worthwhile with the rest of my life,” Mary said. “A plea was made for help with the young people’s program. So I volunteered to help to serve the meal. But before long, I was involved in a deeper and more meaningful way.”
Most of the young women in Mary’s group are from broken and/or dysfunctional homes. One girl’s mother is an exotic dancer. Another’s has a live–in boyfriend and gets drunk almost every Saturday night. Other girls live with their mothers in the Army’s residential shelter. Still others live with family in cheap motel rooms.
“All these young people want is to know that you really care about them,” Mary says. “They always greet me with a big hug because they want to love and be loved. I don’t think they get many hugs at home.”
Mary prays for her girls by name every morning. “I keep a list in my Bible,” she says, adding with a twinkle in her eye, “I sometimes tend to be forgetful, you know.
“I’m hoping and praying that I may have a part in salvaging some of these young people for the Lord,” she says.
Most of the “Tuesday night crew” also attend Sunday school and church, and they are often found at the mercy seat (altar), where Mary and other mentors pray with them.
Mary is involved with the girls in other ways too. The past two years, she has accompanied them to regional youth meetings. She has gone with them on ice–skating outings and a trip to Disney World. “I went on some of the rides,” she says, “but I drew the line at roller coasters.”
Miss Mary may be an octogenarian, but in many ways she’s still “with it.” Recently she saw a Facebook message from one of her girls that included inappropriate language. The next Tuesday, without identifying the offender, she talked about the temptation to use coarse language.
“The message got across,” Mary says, “because I saw the girl hang her head in shame.”
One young woman spoke for the group when she said, “Thanks, Miss Mary, for hanging in there with us.”