Centenarian looks back on a lifetime of living her faith

By Laurie Hallstrom

In the past 100 years Mary Ellen Bennett has attended Mass thousands of times. These days a friend, Maria Nehl, calls her at 7 a.m. Sunday mornings and picks her up for 8 o’clock Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Occasionally, they attend Latin Mass at the old cathedral, Immaculate Conception Church. She makes an

effort to remember the prayers she grew up with. She learned the “Our Father” in Latin and tries to pick it out of the Liturgy. “I can’t see well enough to follow a prayer book anymore,” she said.

Commenting on her faith life, she said, “You know that God is looking after you; he knows what’s going on.

“I felt that He was there to make sure things were going okay even when they didn’t seem to be going the right way. Whenever I was really ill, I felt confident things would be all right. I always had a backup in God.”

She has met many priests along the way. One of her favorites is Fr. Michel Mulloy who was her pastor at cathedral parish for 12 years. “I’ve always enjoyed him. He is positive, and suggests you shape up once in a while,” said Mary Ellen.

She was born in 1918. Her father, Tom McMahon, was a baptized Catholic but didn’t practice the faith until his wife became Catholic.

“My brother Bob was really sick and in the hospital in eadwood. That’s when mom (Mary) became a convert,” she said.

Mary Ellen was baptized as a toddler alongside her brothers Earl and Bob. Her brother John was born four years after her.

“I remember my first confession, no way would you get me in that little box,” she said. After her two oldest brothers went to confession, her mother and a priest, whose name has escaped her, spent the afternoon cajoling her to step into the small dark confessional, and eventually, she relented.

She doesn’t remember much about her first Communion other than that she and her oldest brothers took instructions from Fr. William Boyd.

Mary Ellen grew up on the family ranch her grandparents homesteaded in 1880. She attended Spring Creek rural school, two miles from her home.

For secondary education she attended the old Cathedral High School. “We drove from the ranch to the school every day,” she said.

During the first year his older siblings were all in high school, younger brother, John attended the Catholic elementary school. “After a year he returned to Spring Creek school; he was not ready to be a city person,” Mary Ellen said.

There were 13 pupils in her graduating class in 1935. They were taught by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Dubuque, Iowa. She attended the S.D. School of Mines and Technology for one year, and then studied one year at a teacher’s college, Spearfish Normal, now dubbed Black Hills State University. She taught in rural schools in Deerfield for one year and near Caputa for one year.

When she quit she returned to the ranch, “rode my horses and watched the cows grow.” She also travelled “here, there and everywhere” seeing relatives on both U.S. coasts and visiting her brother Earl as an engineering student in Omaha, Neb., and then when he was working in Pittsburg, Pa.

In 1950, Fr. David Buescher, Hermosa,   presided when she married Emmett

Bennett. She met Emmett when he came home from serving after WWII. Abroad, he served in Africa, India and Italy. In America, he was stationed in Washington state. He went to work for the U. S. Post Office and she became a homemaker. They had three children, Gary, Nancy and a little girl who died at age six months. Emmett passed away in 1997.

For most of their elementary education their children attended Perpetual Help Elementary school, later renamed St. Elizabeth Seton Elementary.

While she wasn’t registered in the altar society, she helped members setting up and serving at many, many wedding and funeral luncheons.

After years of attending Mass at Immaculate Conception Cathedral and when it became too small, at the Knights of Columbus Hall, she and her mother, Mary, attended the dedication of the new Cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Help,  on May 7, 1963.

She celebrated her centennial birthday on August 31 with an open house in her Rapid City home; on September 1 with a family luncheon at Terra Sancta Retreat Center; and on September 2 with a family day at the ranch south of town on Highway 79.

Today, she has a walking stick by the front door and a walker that is usually on the other side of the house when she needs it. Asked to impart some wisdom she said, “Just be glad each day comes.”

Mary Ellen Bennett, Rapid City, celebrated her 100th birthday on August 31. She is a parishioner at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Her paternal grandmother lived to age 101 and her mother lived to age 104.

 (WRC photo by Laurie Hallstrom)