Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

Outcast. Prophet. Saint. Copeland constantly uses these loaded definitions when referring to herself. And she refers to herself constantly. Her mission is part of a grand plan, she says. "I've been given a grace from God. Of course, everyone walks with God's grace. But ever since I was a little girl I've known a special grace. How else can you explain what I've been able to do? How else can you explain what I've been able to survive?"

The details vary from year to year, but Copeland's autobiography, like the story of Maria, is the stuff of a made-for-TV miniseries. She was born Mary Jo Holtby in Rochester, to a poverty-stricken, dysfunctional family. For six years she lived with her doting grandparents. Then, when her baby brother John was born, her nuclear family reunited. Father Woodrow, bent out of whack by a tour of combat in Korea, beat his wife Gertrude, then beat Mary Jo. Copeland remembers getting kicked in the face. She remembers cowering in the corner of her room "like a little mouse."

Gertrude, Copeland's story goes, would go to the bingo hall and gamble for food and booze, leaving the family in filth. Mary Jo smelled. The kids at Catholic school laughed. She had no friends. She only had God. Even then, only interfacing with someone more needy, more alone, could soothe her tortured soul. "When I was 16 I used my first paycheck from Woolworth's to buy a poor lady a coat," Copeland says. "I spent my entire paycheck."

Christopher Peters

Barely past puberty, Copeland decided she would become a nun. Then Dick Copeland appeared at a school dance at Holy Angels Academy in Richfield, and everything changed for both of them. Dick, who came from wealth, was cast from his family for pursuing a relationship with Mary Jo. His relatives still think she's disturbed (the first and last time Mary Jo went to her in-laws' for dinner, she ended up waiting for Dick in the car).

After marrying Dick, Mary Jo found her first calling: raising a family. In 14 years she gave birth to six boys and six girls. "When people ask me how I can get up and do what I do every day, I remind them that I raised 12 kids on one salary," Copeland says. "This is a breeze." After the birth of her eighth child, Copeland's body deteriorated. The doctor prescribed bed rest, but she didn't have the time. Instead she took prescription painkillers during the day and sleeping pills at night. In the late '80s, Copeland told reporters she used to wash the drugs down with alcohol. Now she says her drinking habits were exaggerated. Either way, she spent five years addicted to Valium. "My mom went through some hard shit," Copeland's son Mark says. "I remember seeing her curled up in a ball on the floor, crying. When you think about it, it's a miracle she survived."

Eventually, Copeland fought off the jones with prayer. Then Dick told her to flee the nest. "She had so much love," he says. "She had to share it with the world." That's when Copeland went to work for Catholic Charities.

Through it all, Copeland says she remained an outcast from her own family. She didn't want to speak to her father, and her mother remained aloof until she died. "I sent her flowers on Mother's Day," she says, wiping her tears with a blue tissue. "I tried to call her. But she never answered. She never came."

Even today, Copeland says she feels like she's living on the outside of a glass jar, looking in. But now she knows her pain had a purpose. Just as God delivered her from evil, she can shepherd the poor through this life to another. "It's simple acts of love that will make us saints," she says. "Love, love, love until it hurts. That's what God is all about."

The Silver Spoon restaurant is located on the 6700 block of Penn Avenue just south of 494 in Richfield. The diner's aging crowd of morning regulars made its mark decades ago, when Southtown was a booming suburban mall and blue-collar businesses flourished on both sides of the highway. Now the neighborhood serves as a reminder of what the world looked like before the service industry was franchised. There are no Starbucks, no Boston Markets, no McDonald's, just a collection of fading storefronts and strong black coffee at the Silver Spoon.

Before she died of a stroke in 1996, Mary Jo Copeland's mother Gertrude Holtby ran a dress shop specializing in clothing for older women, just one block north of the Silver Spoon. Joyce Spencer, who runs a dry-cleaning service across the street from where Holtby worked, says her neighbor stayed open through her 82nd birthday because she loved meeting new customers, chatting with mainstays in the neighborhood, and starting her day at the Silver Spoon. "I swear," Spencer says with a spit. "If there's a saint in this story, it's the mother--not the daughter."

Up and down the Silver Spoon's front counter, regulars echo Spencer's sentiments. Holtby, whom everyone still calls Gert, was known as "kind," "good-hearted," and "compassionate." Copeland, on the other hand, is held in contempt. "Don't come around here if you're looking for someone to say nice things about Mary Jo," Spencer says. "Gert never had a drinking problem, never gambled. She played bingo at the VFW, that's all--10 cents a card. Gertrude was very good to everyone, including her family."

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