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Memory and Mercy: One Marian Helper's Unforgettable Ministry

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By Terry Peloquin (Sep 17, 2019)
Every Thursday, Stephen Robertson visits Grace House assisted living in Silver Spring, Maryland. There, he leads its residents in the praying of the Angelus, the Holy Rosary, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Many of the nearly 30 people living there contend with poor short-term memory. Their condition, however, doesn't prevent them from being, as Stephen calls them, "prayer warriors."

Before Stephen began this weekly practice, he was visiting Rev. Arnold W. Deporter there on a regular basis. Father Deporter had been a priest at the nearby Our Lady of Grace parish. "He was one of the priests who was part of the process of me returning to my faith as an adult Catholic," said Stephen, who was confirmed in 2013.

About the same time, Fr. Deporter was having memory loss issues. The source of the problem turned out to be brain cancer. He underwent surgery, but his memory continued to decline over the next two years.

I know you
Thanks to Fr. Deporter's influence, Stephen was dedicating himself to daily Mass, daily Rosary, daily prayer, and daily study. "Father Deporter told me, 'When I'm gone, I want you strong enough to not need me except for Confession.'"

Toward the end, Fr. Deporter began to forget people. "I was one of the few people he still remembered," Stephen says.

Then one day, Fr. Deporter told him, "I feel bad."

Stephen asked, "Father, why do you feel bad?"

Father Deporter replied, "Because I know who you are." But he couldn't say Stephen's name.

So Stephen asked, "Father, how do you know you know me?"

The priest went to his Bible and opened it up. "It's written right here, 'You will know My followers.'" He paused and asked, "Have you ever heard of the Greek word fortoula?"

Stephen said that he had.

"Well," said Fr. Deporter, "the Greeks have this belief from when they were converting to Christianity. They refer to it as the 'Light of God,' the 'Fortoula.' You could look at a person, and when that person had the Spirit of God within them, the light would shine from their eyes. And I see that you're trying to carry God's light in your eyes. So I know you."

"I just sobbed," Stephen recalls. "Because at the deepest core of his being, one of these foundational truths of the Roman Catholic faith could not be wiped from his brain. Not even by cancer."

Visiting new friends
Father Deporter entered into eternal life June 10, 2018. During the priest's final days, Stephen visited almost daily, if only to keep him company.

"I noticed that some of the residents were former parishioners of Our Lady of Grace," he says. "So these are all people I know. Then I began visiting them."

He began praying with the residents individually. Then, someone suggested using the residence's chapel so everybody could pray together. Stephen agreed. The consensus was that Thursday worked best for everyone. "Depending on people's schedules, I get anywhere from two to as many as 18 people in there."

Stephen has noticed how each of them, in their own way, demonstrates their faith. "One person has very profound memory problems, but when we start praying the Rosary, it's like he suddenly comes back to life, and he keeps pace with everybody. I asked him, 'Why is prayer the one thing you can hang on to?' And he said, 'My earliest memories of my family was hearing them pray.'"

As is common in such cases, the residents who have difficulties with short-term memory or gaining new memories tend to retain old memories. When some lose their memory, they can even revert to their mother language. One resident, for example, is Italian. "There are times when she is praying the 'Hail Holy Queen,' she starts to pray in Italian because it's so automatic for her."

We can still pray
When Stephen had first received an order of pamphlets from the Association of Marian Helpers, he put one pamphlet into the hands of a memory impaired woman. She smiled and told him, "I know that if I have this before I go to bed I can pray this by myself."

Trying to memorize the prayers has therapeutic advantages, Stephen points out. He encourages residents to try to memorize as much as they can, but they can still follow the words on the page if they need to.

"What ultimately matters," Stephen says, "is that God is seeing the content of our hearts. He sees that we are assembling here together to pray for ourselves and for each other. We're also here in gratitude for what He has given us."

Stephen says that when relating to people who are dealing with memory loss, failing health, or aging, a key ingredient is consistency. "So I knew that things were beginning to come together when one particular person said, 'Oh! Stephen's here. It must be Thursday.'"

Rather than trying to be there every day and risk burning out, Stephen is happy with the scheduled prayer time. "I make sure that I'm there every single week without fail. I realize that if I ever missed a day, I would feel terrible because they need me. And I need them. And I've come to love them."

As one resident said to him, "Stephen, most of my family has passed away. Your being here reminds me that there is a family still here. It is my Christian family. It is my Catholic family."

Treasured words
Once residents began using the Marian Press prayer pamphlets, Stephen noticed something. "These people guard those pamphlets," he said. "When they're done with them, they fold them up correctly. They put them back up at the altar."

The residents at Grace House pray the Rosary, the Chaplet, and the Angelus. The prayers are repetitious, and there is comfort in that aspect of the prayer as well.

There's another reason the Angelus is so important to these residents, Stephen says. "They are from a generation of people who remember when the bells would ring at that certain time, and people, wherever they were, would stop what they were doing and pray. And that's the amazing thing. Some people, even with profound memory loss, when you start to pray the Angelus — it's like they become young again."

Stephen explains, "It's a part of that perpetual renewal. In Psalm 111 it says, 'He remembers His covenant forever.' In other words, by remembering His covenant, He's forgetting our sins, but He's also demonstrating to us over and over again, He renews our memory of His past deeds. He's showing us who He is and who we are in relation to Him. And that's the other end of that covenant: that if we keep faith with Him, He will always be there for us. So in that way, the prayers come from their souls. Despite the memory loss. Despite the sufferings. Despite the trauma. Despite the age."

A much-needed ministry
Stephen Robertson urges others to visit nursing homes and assisted living facilities in their own communities.

"I would love to encourage anyone who has a Rosary and a pamphlet to take it with them to a nursing home, visit their chapel, and encourage the residents to go there."

Can't make a regular time commitment? Stephen says to deliver the prayer pamphlets to nursing homes and assisted living facilities and encourage residents to gather weekly or even daily for devotions.

"Just tell them, 'I want to help you rediscover that this wonderful outpouring of mercy is at your disposal,'" Stephen says. "All you need to do is say, 'Here I am, Lord.'"

Visit to order our "Pray the Rosary Daily" pamphlet (PR2) or the "Chaplet of the Divine Mercy" (CDML). Or call toll free 1-800-462-7426.

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