Carolyn Woo

May is the month of Mary and memories come to mind about how much she has been a part of my life. These reminiscences are like going through a family album and sharing stories of those moments that jump out from the pages.

In kindergarten in Hong Kong, I played Mary in the Christmas pageant. I was put in a white crinoline dress with a veil secured by tinsels at my neck. It was terribly uncomfortable, but I was too timid to tell anyone. I was so nervous, I left baby Jesus on the stage and left without him. My acting career ended.

In first grade, after failing the entrance exam for St. Paul’s School, I somehow passed the tests for the Maryknoll Sisters School, founded by the American nuns whose patron is the Blessed Mother. Their devotion would help me know God.

For my confirmation, my older sister gave me the name “Delores.” Only in college did I find out that it stood for the sorrowful mother.

In school, I loved May crowning and would string jasmines from my mother’s rooftop garden into a little crown for the ceremony. Jasmine remains one of my favorite flowers.

In the Legion of Mary, I first engaged in service to the poor.

A big portrait of the Blessed Mother hung in the center of our childhood home. Even though my mother and nanny were not Catholic, they would turn to her with their worries and felt assured. They offered the best blooms from the rooftop garden to her.

When I joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, lovingly referred to as “Our Lady’s University,” its beloved president emeritus, Father Ted Hesburgh, noted that “mediocrity is not the way to serve the Blessed Mother.” I signed most of my correspondence, “Yours in Notre Dame,” and never forgot the privilege and responsibility that came with it.

As my mother drifted into her final stage of life, I held her hand and a rosary my son Justin made. As I recited the rosary and Divine Mercy, I felt that three women as daughters, wives and mothers were joined in the sacred circle of life and that I understood my mother’s struggles in a way that I had not before, bringing a feeling of profound peace.

It was the last day of the Year of the Rosary and I pledged three mysteries by the end of the day. But the day was unrelentingly busy and Ryan, my older son, called to get together for supper. After that, I crashed. I was focused on obligations, but Mary took care of me as a mother would, sending my son and a good long rest.

The business school at Notre Dame had climbed the rankings from No. 7 to No. 2 when I was the dean there. On the day when a new ranking was to be released, I was quite sad and just knew we would not be No. 1 as we are the Blessed Mother’s university and she would not want our heads to swell. I prayed that it would not fall more than five places back to No. 7. After Mass, my phone showed a tiny message: “We are #1!”

I went to the grotto to give thanks, wondered how silly it was to make assumptions about the Blessed Mother, and knew that the honor came with a responsibility.

At the motherhouse of Maryknoll, after reading the diaries of founder Mother Mary Joseph, I felt compelled to sit at her desk, to pledge my part in carrying on the “yes” of the Maryknoll Sisters inspired by the first “yes” of their patron saint whose son gave love a human face and body.


Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.