One of the great gifts of travel is the opportunity it provides to meet remarkable human beings who would not otherwise cross your path. For Himself and Yours Truly, one such encounter occurred in Ireland when we stayed in a B&B just south of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland—or Ulster, if you prefer. All of us live with preconceptions, and for me, those preconceptions never really considered encountering an Anglican widow in the Republic of Ireland, a woman who would teach me more about Irish history in a few short exhanges than I had been able to gather in a lifetime of casual reading.
The Rector’s wife, our hostess, was a kind and gracious woman, soft spoken but somehow able to cast a large shadow despite a tiny frame. She had given her life in service to her family, her church, and her community. In widowhood, she continued to give—so active in her church that she still carried a key, even though she no longer had an official role. We learned much about her life—and her husband’s—because she offered us a tour of the medieval church where she worshiped. The church was beautiful, but it was the woman herself who provided the most vivid memories.
During our private tour, the Rector’s wife shared the history of her church and memories of her late husband, an Anglican priest who had worked passionately for peace between Protestants and Catholics—she at his side. Our hostess recollected how things once were and how they had changed, how during her youth girls of different faiths were unable to attend one another’s weddings—and her quiet satisfaction over the fact that now they could not only attend, they could be part of the wedding party itself. In her town, Catholics and Protestants often found opportunities to worship together—and as she saw it, that was part of her husband’s legacy. From our perspective, it was also part of her legacy.
Mrs. R recounted how the Protestant community in the Republic had diminished, in part because church attendance as a whole had declined and in part because so many Protestant families had fled the Republic. She recalled how her husband had worked to make the resulting transitions move smoothly. For example, as smaller congregations declined to the point of no longer being viable, he took it upon himself to help transfer the disused churches, often historic buildings of great age, to Catholic auspices. And when his fellow Protestants bemoaned the idea that Catholic mass would likely supplant their own, he reminded them that Catholic mass had been recited in those buildings long before the first Anglicans had arrived.
Scattered among these memories of Irish history—her history—were personal memories of a heroic life lived well. She and her family had remained in the Republic. They were Irish, and this was their home. They had remained churchgoing Anglicans, committed to their faith and its best principles. And they had become more connected than ever with their neighbors of both faiths, practicing cooperation rather than simply preaching it.
After the tour was completed, with thanks given and photos taken, we drove our hostess up to the High Street to pick up a few items for her larder. At every turn, we encountered her neighbors moving forward to greet Mrs. R., asking after her health, allowing for introductions, wishing her well—small gestures that demonstrated her importance to this community, tokens of respect and affection. She was clearly a woman of great worth in her small town, and everyone seemed to recognize that fact—except perhaps for the Rector’s wife herself, who seemed only to see friends and neighbors.