Saintly souls often remain hidden from the eyes of the world and are only discovered by chance. In this way, Mary Ann Long is a source of inspiration in much the same way as Saint Therese of the Infant Jesus. Like the “Little Flower,” Mary Ann provides a valuable lesson that anyone can fully live a Catholic life and die a saintly death by simply accepting God’s will. This is especially true in our present world, where people’s lives are judged by the pleasures they enjoy and where “useless” lives are extinguished before birth or shortened in old age.
The only book about this unique little girl titled A Memoir of Mary Ann1 was written by the Dominican Nuns who cared for her in Atlanta, Georgia. The only photo shows only the profile of Mary Ann sitting in a wheelchair. The reason why we only see part of her face is where the story of Mary Ann begins.
She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1946. The Memoir does not mention the day of her birth nor the names of her parents. We only know they were Dollie and George Long because she is buried beside them in Louisville’s St. Stephens Cemetery.
At the age of three and a half, she was afflicted with a cancerous tumor on the left side of her face, which required the removal of her eye. The doctors gave her six months to live and told the parents they could do nothing more for their child. This was a particularly heavy blow for Mrs. Long, a mother of three, whose own health was not good. At the doctor’s recommendation, they decided to send Mary Ann to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta, Georgia.2 It was a painful decision for the parents, but they had no other solution.
The Home in Atlanta received a letter from the Louisville hospital about the girl heading their way.
“This patient,” it explained, “is a very lovable little girl and one who touches the hearts of all who come into contact with her.”
Most Unique Religious Vocation
It is worth noting that neither of Mary’s parents had any religious affiliation. Although Mr. Long was baptized a Catholic, his mother had fallen away from the Faith. This might have been the reason for their unease in sending their ailing daughter to a home run by Catholic Dominican Nuns. Mary Ann had no such fear.
When they arrived at the Home, Sister Veronica, who was the first to see the child, held out her motherly arms. Mary Ann instinctively flung herself into her maternal embrace. One sister wrote down a first impression of the child:
As I entered the ward, I saw just one side of the child’s face. A lustrous sparkling brown eye, clear, bright skin tending toward olive, with a faint flush high on her cheek, a delicate straight nose, all this framed by light brown wavy curling hair, made a symmetrical, clean-cut profile.
She then describes the rest of her face with “a swollen left cheek and closed eye [socket],” but it did not repel her. Mary Ann showed no shyness about her affliction. “She expected to be accepted for herself.”
Mary Ann quickly moved from one patient’s bed to another, spreading sunshine and comforting those with whom she shared the same illness. It was the beginning of a most unique religious vocation. Indeed, before her death at 13, she was admitted into the Third Order of St. Dominic as a Tertiary.
Apostolic Efforts of The Child
Over the next nine years—for a girl who only expected to live six months—Mary was a normal little Kentuckian in every respect. She had a dog named Snappy, loved Dagwood sandwiches, and played hide and seek with her sisters when they came to visit. She was also mischievous, but her pranks were not meant to harm but rather to uplift the spirits of those around her.
Before long, Mary Ann began to ask questions about the Catholic Faith. When told about the True Presence, she longed to be included in the heavenly banquet and wept when she could not receive communion with the nuns. She loved to talk about the “baby Jesus” and was profoundly moved by Our Lord’s Passion and Death.
When one nun first showed her the Stations of the Cross. Mary very closely examined the Second Fall of Our Lord. Moved with pity, she exclaimed, “Oh, poor Jesus!”
She was eventually baptized with the somewhat reluctant permission of her parents. They were bewildered by their daughter’s conversion but even more so with her apostolic fervor.
Mary Ann desired that her sisters convert, especially Sue, who showed openness to the Faith. Sue made frequent visits to the Home and was very impressed with Mary’s fervent devotion, especially for the Eucharist. She, too desired to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Before long, Sue began religious instruction back in Louisville. She was eventually baptized and received her first Holy Communion in Atlanta, among the nuns, while kneeling next to Mary Ann. Winnie, the oldest of the sisters, was also at this ceremony and shortly afterward converted to Catholicism.
Finally, there is the story of a 20-year-old female patient named Charlie Mae. Her maladies were of such seriousness as to leave her bedridden. Mary would do little things like brush her hair and keep her company. One night our little apostle asked Charlie to join her in evening prayers.
“I don’t know how to pray,” said Charlie. Mary immediately offered to teach her, which led Charlie to ask questions about the Faith. Mary could not answer some of her inquiries and pointed her to the nuns. Charlie, too was eventually received into the Church.
Accepting the Way God Made Her
People often tried to downplay her deformed face and hideous looks. Once, a nun, seeing Mary in a new dress, commented how pretty she was. “No, sister,” she gravely responded, “I’m not pretty.” On another occasion, a visitor asked the child why she did not pray to God for a cure. She gently smiled and said, “This is the way God wants me.”
This admirable acceptance of suffering was also manifested when her mother tried to take Mary to a plastic surgeon. Once again, the child insisted she was the way God wanted her to be. However, the Memoir astutely points out that Mary was intelligent enough to know that God might have wanted her to be “less than perfect,” but her family did not.
A “self-styled faith healer” once found his way into Mary’s room.
“The Lord can heal you, Mary Ann!” he yelled. Not getting the response he expected, the healer repeated the same phrase three more times with ever greater insistence.
“I know He can,” Mary sternly replied, “but it doesn’t make a bit of difference if He heals me or not. That’s His business.”
Through all her suffering, Mary found great consolation with thoughts of heaven, the angels and the perfection of the glorified body. “When I get to heaven,” she once said, “I’ll have two good eyes, and I’ll run around heaven and be able to see everybody there at once.”
In September 1958, the first death knell sounded for the valiant youngster. One nun entered her room to check and was shocked to find her bed soaked with blood. The little patient had suffered a severe hemorrhage and was weak from the loss of blood.
Over the next several months, she endured similar episodes until one proved fatal the following January. The Dominican Sisters then gathered around her bed as was their custom when one of their own was dying. They sang the Salve Regina. Mary looked up and was so enchanted that she asked them to repeat it.
She slid into unconsciousness but, upon awaking, saw the lighted candle which the nuns had placed by her bed. Mary Ann reached over towards the soft glow of the taper and repeated again and again, “Dear Jesus, I love you!”
At 3:00 in the morning of January 20, 1959, Mary Ann asked for her rosary. As she slipped the beads through her fingers, she dozed off and died a peaceful death.
Today we do not appreciate lives like Mary Ann or value her sacrifices. We prefer the frenetic intemperance of a world without restraint.
We will only know in eternity the value of the sufferings Mary Ann Long so patiently endured during her short life. In a world that chases after celebrities and yearns for earthly recognition, this child lived a hidden life and now rests in anonymity. Yet her name and heroic feats are most certainly written in that marvelous Book of Life. Hidden from the eyes of man but precious in the eyes of God.
1.The Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home Atlanta, Georgia, Memoir of Mary Ann Long (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc., 1961)
2.This Home was founded by Rose Hawthorne, daughter of the famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Rose converted to Catholicism, joined the Dominican Order, and later founded this first Home in Atlanta to care for cancer patients.