TOPEKA — How do you celebrate paying off a major debt?
For one parish, the answer was simple. It served doughnut holes after all the Masses on April 26 to celebrate “getting out of the hole.”
In February 2014, that same parish was looking for ways to reduce a debt of some $250,000 left over from an addition to the parish’s grade school several years prior. Father Greg Hammes had become the pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in southwest Topeka only eight months before.
“I don’t enjoy talking about money,” Father Hammes said, adding he speaks only once each year about money when he presents the parish’s annual financial report. Yet, he realized the severity of the parish’s financial situation.
So, Father Hammes invited parishioners to participate in a mini-campaign known as the “500 for $500.” While donations came in, both large and small, it was not until he took an unusual approach to debt management — that of turning to the Blessed Mother — that donations really took off.
In September 2014, Father Hammes invited the parish to participate in a novena to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Known as Pope Francis’ favorite Marian devotion, it started after German artist Johann Melchior Georg Schmittdner painted an image of Mary based on a meditation written by St. Irenaeus.
In the meditation, St. Irenaeus made a comparison between Eve and Mary, saying, “Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas, Mary, by her obedience, undid it.”
The image features Mary with a string of knots in her hands. One by one, she unties each knot as it passes through her hands. According to the devotion, the knots represent the problems and challenges for which no solutions seem possible, including the knots of discord within families, the knots of addictions, and the knots of societal ills such as wars.
According to Father Hammes, his own spiritual director, Sister Susan Pieper of the Apostles of the Interior Life, mentioned the devotion to him one day. Because he knew very little about it, he looked it up. Shortly thereafter, he used the novena prayer as the opening prayer at a pastoral council meeting.
“I’ve always had a devotion to Mary, and I really like this one,” said Father Hammes, adding he often reflects on how young children, when they cannot figure out how to get a knot out of their shoelace, often take their shoes or march themselves to their mothers for help.
“When we can’t do it, we just have to entrust it to Mary, our heavenly mother,” he said.
After presenting the novena to the parish, Father Hammes and parishioners started noticing a marked change in the parish itself. “A lot of people got excited,” he said.
Representing just one family of many, Tom Doyle said turning to the Blessed Mother was the most natural thing in the world for the parish to do.
“Mary is our patroness, so who else would we turn to in our time of need but our mother?” Doyle said, adding that he noticed an immediate difference in both his own family and in his parish family.
“[The debt] was always there, and I don’t know why, but suddenly, it became doable,” said Doyle. “The burden seemed easier. . . . Suddenly, people were saying, ‘This is our parish. This is our debt. This is our responsibility.’”
Donations of varying amounts came in at a quicker rate than before.
“It kept building up little by little,” said Doyle, adding people said it was miraculous.
In 14 months, the debt that had seemed so insurmountable was retired.
For Father Hammes, the real key was quite simple: prayer.
“God has been and continues to be generous,” said Father Hammes, “but he is especially generous when we pray.”