Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle had a busy 2008. In February, she was one of 260 women invited from around the world by Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, to participate in the International Women’s Congress in Rome to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women). She also published three books: The Domestic Church: Room by Room, and Grace Café: Serving Up Recipes for Faithful Mothering (Circle Press, sister publisher to the Register), and Catholic Saints Prayer Book (Our Sunday Visitor).
To bring inspiration to women daily in their role as mothers, O’Boyle also keeps up several blogs. She and her husband, David, are the parents of five children, the youngest of whom is 17.
O’Boyle took time out from working on her latest book, The Heart of Catholicism, to talk about her life and work with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.
You’ve written several books on motherhood. How does your family observe Holy Week?
Holy Week is such an integral time of the year for Catholics. It’s a week that we can look forward to celebrating, during which time we can strive to become more intimately united to Jesus’ passion. Even when the kids were very young, I have always encouraged the family to partake in as many Masses and services at church as possible this week, particularly during the holy triduum. At home in our “domestic church,” we attempt to retreat from the secular and focus on the holy, which means less or no TV, Internet, telephone, and the things that take up our time and attention. We focus more on prayer and penance as a family and individually.
Did your background prepare or influence you in your work today?
I grew up in a tight-knit Catholic family with eight kids. It was natural for us to go to church. My mother and grandmother made an impression on me because of their faith, and I recounted that in a chapter in Grace Café: Serving Up Recipes for Faithful Mothering (Circle Press, 2008) called “Unforgettable Teachings.” I wrote it to help encourage families and mothers to put the sacred images of the domestic church in their households. Their example of going to church and praying with the family makes an impression on their children as unforgettable teachings that stay on their hearts.
What particular impression did your mother and grandmother make?
My mother, Alexandra Mary Cooper, had a tough life, but remained faithful and prayerful. Keeping us kids on the straight and narrow spoke volumes. She would gather us together in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother to pray the Rosary together, especially on feast days and for special needs in the family. We prayed the Rosary on a regular basis, and that really stayed with me. The Rosary would become an important part of my life and showed how the Blessed Mother was watching over me.
To walk into my grandmother Alexandra Mary Uzwiak’s home, with its many statues, pictures and images, was like walking into a church. She was a woman of great faith and expressed it in the images and her example and many prayers for the family. She made quite an impression on me because of her strong faith in God. I developed my love for John Paul II from my grandmother.
How did you start publishing your writing while raising a family?
God had a plan that unfolded during the pregnancy of my fifth child, Mary-Catherine. I had to be on complete bed rest during the pregnancy because of a serious problem in my pregnancy. During that time, I got word to Mother Teresa and asked for prayers. She sent me a Miraculous Medal to wear during that pregnancy and said I should trust the Blessed Mother that all would be well. She told me to pray a simple prayer: “Mary, Mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now.” And that would work miracles. It’s so simple. I now teach it all the time.
I had a bustling household with four older children around me, but I had to stay put on the couch and bed to preserve the life of my unborn baby. Being on complete bed rest afforded me the time to do something I had never expected to do during that pregnancy. I was inspired to see a pregnancy as a nine-month novena of living prayer to God, and I started writing a book for expectant mothers that would be an actual journal to record their reflections and prayers — and hopefully be inspired by writings of saints, the Church and holy fathers.
By God’s grace, I wove a novena of prayers to some of the popular saints we invoke during pregnancy, as well as original prayers and teachings from the Church, that would uplift the dignity of motherhood. My purpose was to follow that inspiration and help mothers and expectant mothers to recognize the sublimity of the vocation as a mother. That’s how Prayerfully Expecting (Crossroads Publishing, 2007) came to be.
Other books came out of it, as well. God kept pushing and prodding me to get the message out to mothers and women and families about the dignity of the human person and of motherhood.
I sent them to Mother Teresa, my mentor, spiritual guide and friend. She went over them and had her spiritual director go over them. She surprised me with a foreword for my books Prayerfully Expecting and The Heart of Motherhood.
Tell us about your friendship with Blessed Mother Teresa and her inspiration.
About 20 years ago, I went to Washington to visit (now Servant of God) Father John Hardon. I was very privileged and blessed to have him as my spiritual director. He took us to the Gift of Peace house which was attached to the Missionaries of Charity convent. We visited those sick with cancer and AIDS.
The Missionaries of Charity told us Mother Teresa was in the convent at the time and invited us to come back the next day for either of two Masses in their chapel. Father Hardon asked if I’d like to meet her, but I didn’t want to interfere with her work.
Then, at the Mass we went to, Mother Teresa knelt down beside us.
Our connection happened to my family after the Mass. My daughter Chaldea, who was 6 at the time (now 27), genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament. A nun came up and gave her a big hug. I looked and saw it was Mother Teresa. She went into another room, then came back and walked straight toward me. I was holding Jessica, who was not quite 2. She asked, “Is this the baby who was singing at Mass?” That’s where the conversation began.
We had a beautiful talk about families and family life. She gave us each a blessed Miraculous Medal that she kissed. I felt a strong inspiration on the drive back to Connecticut to get in touch with her to thank her for the medal and prayers. I wrote to her, and within a couple of weeks, I got a letter back from Calcutta. That was the first of 22 letters she would write to me. At least 12 other times I had visits, some of them private, with her in New York.
What were your thoughts about being a delegate to the Holy See’s conference for the 20th anniversary of The Dignity and Vocation of Women?
I was very honored, humbled and surprised to be invited. I’m generally anchored home. I wasn’t even able to go to Mother Teresa’s beatification. But I went as a sponge to absorb as much as I could. It spilled over into my book writing. The Domestic Church: Room by Room and Grace Café: Serving Up Recipes for Faithful Mothering came out of it.
With all of your writing and speaking and engagements, not to mention your family, how do you keep everything balanced?
It’s totally the grace of God: by trusting and asking and constantly praying and offering and surrendering my life. And God does the work. I’m just his servant, and I pray God lives and speaks through me so I can be a light to others.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.