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A Moment with Mary Chester

A young seminary student finds a spiritual mentor in a genteel old lady, whose wisdom lived on even in the afterlife.

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I met Mary Chester Buchan at church when I was a young seminary student, and accepted her invitation to drop by for tea. She was from an old New England family and quite proper in her manners and dress.

My heart beat faster as I stepped into the old brass elevator that took me up to the door of her elegant Cambridge apartment. She greeted me warmly and showed me to a wingback chair. I noticed beautiful oriental rugs, antique tables and walls lined with books. She poured tea from a bone china teapot and offered me cookies on a plate that must have been in her family for generations. “Tell me what brought you to seminary,” Mary Chester said.

I described a vision I had in childhood that I would someday be a preacher. And now, I was enrolled in divinity school to follow that call. “How exciting!” she exclaimed. “Women in my day didn’t have the chance to study what you do.” I sipped my tea and looked at her countless books.

“What are you reading?” she asked. For others this might have been a polite question. Not for Mary Chester. She was genuinely interested in theology. Certainly, she was a sweet, white-haired lady who took care of altar cloths at church and arranged the flowers, but I became aware that she also had read those books on her shelves. Soon we were talking about my courses in Greek, Scripture and theology.

“You must come again,” she said, and I did. In fact, during my three years at seminary, afternoon tea with Mary Chester became a treasured ritual. She might have been 90 years old, but her enthusiasm made her seem half her age. Over the years she took as much delight in my studies as I did. Her only anxiety was that aging would limit her many activities.

“But you have many friends who care about you,” I assured her. Friends like me.

After ordination I moved to Michigan to serve in my first church. I wrote to Mary Chester and she wrote back. But as she became more frail the exchange of letters slowed and finally stopped. I must go see her, I told myself. I must let her know in person how much she has meant to me. But I never did, and word came that she had died.

The day I got the news I was filled with regret. Why hadn’t I visited her in Boston? I could still see that book-lined room and hear her bright, cultivated voice. If only I could hear from her one more time.

Not long after, one of my colleagues dropped by. “I found this old book at a used bookstore and bought it for you,” he said. “I thought you might find it interesting.”

The title was Flowers in Church. I thanked him and looked at the musty old tome. It looked like it could be a hundred years old. I opened to the first page.

“Mary Chester Buchan,” the nameplate read in her delicate handwriting. “Massachusetts.” The book had traveled hundreds of miles just to me.

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