A Blessing for a Peacemaker
Every summer, “marching season” comes to Northern Ireland. For several weeks, members of the Protestant unionist Orange Order parade through towns and cities, often through politically sensitive Catholic and nationalist neighborhoods. This contentious time of year culminates in a torrent of parades on July 12, celebrating Protestant King William of Orange’s bloody victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
All of this drama plays out an ocean away, but for the 2012 Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day grand marshal, Marie Brady Hempsey of West Deptford, N.J., this divisive tradition strikes close to home, and for two reasons. First, because she’s the child of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, both first-generation Irish; and second, because she is the mid-Atlantic coordinator for Project Children, which every summer transports more than 20 kids out of Northern Ireland to the Delaware Valley for a different kind of season—a season of peace.
(Note to readers: The Burlington County parade, originally scheduled for March 3, has been postponed to March 31, due to the threat of heavy rains and thunder.)
Hempsey, a Realtor and the mother of five, comes by her deep understanding of Northern Ireland divisions as a result of early childhood experience. Her father James Brady of Philadelphia’s Fairmount section and mother Florence (née McKnight) from Southwest Philadelphia met in October 1961 and eloped in January 1962. The Bradys embraced Florence, but the union didn’t go down well among the McKnights.
“It upset my mother’s parents more, to be honest with you,” says Hempsey. “My dad’s parents were deceased, but his family were much more accepting of her. Ultimately, the families did not get along. My grandmother (Mary McKnight, from Bushmills, County Antrim) was very hard-nosed against my father. It kind of destroyed my family, I didn’t get to know my cousins. I’m getting to know them now, and I know what wonderful people they are, but it took a while.”
Religious divisions were nowhere evident within her immediate family. In fact, Hempsey was brought up with no religious preference; she was left to decide for herself.
Decide she did in 1990, when her third child Kelly was very ill with a rare autoimmune disease that affected her lungs and her crippled her ability to breathe. “They had to put her on a vent, and people said she needed to be baptized,” Hempsey recalled. “I had a wonderful family and husband (Phi), but I knew something was missing. Father (James) Curran came to the house, and I asked him what I could do. He said, ‘Picture Jesus holding her,’ and I did. “That was my epiphany. I just knew I was meant to be a Catholic.”
Kelly’s survived the ordeal, by the way.
One life-changing experience would be enough for most people, but one more awaited Hempsey. It came in 1995, when she and her family were attending an Irish festival in Gloucester City. A nun by the name of Sister Frances Kirk, then the local coordinator for Project Children, was handing out fliers when she suddenly dropped them. Hempsey, her husband and the kids chased them all down and returned them to their rightful owner.
Before Hempsey knew it, she found herself pumping Sister Frances for information about Project Children. “I asked her about it, and when she told me, I said, ‘I want to do that!’ She said, ‘Send me an application and we’ll see what we can do.’”
A few years went by before the Hempseys were approved to host kids from Northern Ireland for the summer. Hempsey suspects Sister Frances held back because she knew there were five kids in the house already. “It probably looked to her like I already had my hands full.”
The Hempseys became a host family in 2000, taking in up to four kids every summer since, most of them multiple times, 11 kids in all. This summer, they’ll take in three kids, making for one packed household. Hempsey takes it in stride. “We’re a little crazy … fun crazy.”
Right from the start, Hempsey knew she was doing the right thing.
“For some reason, we always get the kids who are the ‘real deal.’ They have parents in prison, or had grandparents who were martyred. They send us a lot of kids from Belfast and Derry and Armagh.
“A lot of the kids’ parents we talk to say they can’t afford to take them away somewhere over the summer. If you’re a kid living in live in Ardoyne during marching season, you don’t get much of a summer. You know the parades are coming.”
Hosting fulfilled a need for Hempsey, a way to restore a bit of sanity to the lives of deserving kids. She wanted to do more.
From the start, Hempsey was an enthusiastic supporter of Project Children, and that enthusiasm evidently impressed Sister Frances. In 2004, Sister handed off the coordinator role to Hempsey.
“She said she prayed and prayed for someone to have the passion and drive to do this, and ‘God sent her me.’ That’s the best compliment I could have received.”
Given a lifetime of accomplishment and dedication to Irish causes—Hempsey is also historian and chairperson of immigration and legislation for the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians Camden County Division 1—it perhaps should not be very surprising that she was selected as this year’s Burlington County grand marshal. And the first woman grand marshal in the parade’s seven-year history, at that.
Really, only one person was surprised: Hempsey herself.
Now that it’s all sunk in, Hempsey plans to just enjoy and treasure the moment.
“I was absolutely shocked,” she says. “When I was told I was the grand marshal, I just laughed. I said, ‘What, are you kidding me?’ I’m honored. I really am.”
You can help support Project Children by attending the group’s annual benefit April 21 at the Richard T. Rossiter Memorial Hall in National Park. Tickets are $30. Call Hempsey at 609-330-4484 for details.