There are so many stories surrounding Mary Jo Copeland, “Minnesota's Mother Teresa,” that it's hard to know where to begin. Michelle Lynn Peterson cleverly kicks off her Copeland biography with the story of Brian Philbrick, whose childhood is destroyed and his self-worth beaten out of him by his father. Believing himself nothing more than “an animal,” Brian becomes a drifter at the age of 15, armed with anger, fear and distrust. We don't hear about Brian again until well into Mary Jo's story.
After enduring Mary Jo's odyssey of childhood neglect, readers see hope unfold as she meets and marries Dick Copeland. They raise a family of 12 children with very little means and Mary Jo's stark determination to let nothing get her down. “After what she'd been through and seen in her life,” Peterson writes, “there really wasn't much she couldn't handle.”
That motto carries Mary Jo through several years of depression and addiction until Dick coaxes her out of the house and into volunteering at the Catholic Charities center in downtown Minneapolis. Mary Jo soon finds herself in a battle of wills on how best to serve the city's homeless, is terminated and continues her charitable work from the trunk of her Plymouth Reliant. “Mary Jo's whole experience only strengthened her own philosophy: that the souls in this world will continue to flounder until their basic needs are met,” writes Peterson. “They need services that are based on unconditional love, not bureaucracy. ‘You have to take people as they come to you, not as you want them to be,’ explains Mary Jo.”
The rest of the book is devoted to Mary Jo's growing charity “complex,” from storefront shelter to Sharing and Caring Hands, which serves hundreds of people a day, and Mary's Place Shelter transitional housing. I found myself rooting for Mary Jo every time she encountered an obstacle, and believing in her every time she exclaimed to Dick, “Who else is going to do it?” The story ends with Mary Jo's newest project, Gift of Mary, a $30 million home for children. (All proceeds from this book go toward that project.)
Mary Jo's take-charge “Martha” nature is complemented by a deep faith and willingness to sit daily at the feet of the Lord and listen. She never lacks a hug, a prayer, a word of comfort, bus tokens or dollar bills for those who seek her out, and she never misses the twice-daily ritual of washing the battered feet that walk through her doors.
This is where Brian re-enters the story. Failing to get a response from the dirty, belligerent stranger who shows up at the shelter, Mary Jo finally reaches him through his bloodied and blistering feet. When she kneels before him to wash and tend his sores, it sets the stage for his first encounter with love. The daily washing sparks a relationship between the two that exemplifies the unconditional love of Jesus and reminds us that his light can shine in the darkest corners.
It's a great story within a story and one of Great Love's finest moments. Its weakest come when we sense that we're only getting the most celebratory side of Mary Jo Copeland's story. Of the many clergy, volunteers, philanthropists, city leaders, politicians and family members we encounter, several of whom had their differences with Mary Jo, none is given much space to express a detracting or at least questioning opinion. Such perspective could have given the book needed balance.
Despite its lack of depth, Great Love provides a cheerful, inspiring read — perfect for Mother's Day — and serves as a motivating reminder that nothing is impossible with God.
Barb Ernster writes from