Cheverus profiles: Mary Ryan, Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre

byWes Cipolla Pilot Staff

Mary Ryan is pictured in her Milton home in late January. Pilot photo/Wes Cipolla

Ryan, a Dame of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, was one of 151 people who received Cheverus Awards in 2023. The annual archdiocesan awards honor those who have dedicated their lives to serving the Catholic Church in Boston. Ryan attended the November 2023 Cheverus Awards ceremony at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where Cardinal O'Malley mentioned her in his homily -- along with the fact that she was 101 years old. Ryan had heard that Cardinal O'Malley "never mentions people" like that, so she was "shocked" to hear him say her name.
"But I don't know if people who are at my age were there," Ryan told The Pilot in a Jan. 28 interview.
"After 100," her daughter Kathleen Lavery joked to The Pilot, "you can do anything."
Lavery thought that Cardinal O'Malley's nod to her mother was "kind of funny" but not surprising.
"I'm used to having her recognized as a good person," she said.

Ryan was invited to join the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre in 1982, along with her late husband George. The order is responsible for the care and protection of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Christian community of the Holy Land. Ryan spent 20 years doing secretarial work for the Order. As is expected for members, she has contributed to it financially for the last 40 years. Money raised for the Order goes to schools, hospitals, and priests in the Holy Land. Ryan said that as war once again rages in the Holy Land, the Order's mission is as important as ever.
"That's where the church started," she said. "Christ was born there, he died, and he rose from the dead. And this is where it all started."
George later became a lieutenant of the Order's Northeastern Lieutenancy and vice-governor general of the Order in the western hemisphere. He died in 2021 at the age of 99.
Ryan attributed her longevity to her "wonderful husband."
"Both of my parents had a long life together," Lavery said, "and were very faithful. So, I think if anything got them through the longevity that they had, 99 or 101, it was their faithfulness to the church and each other."
Outside of the Order, Ryan volunteered as a driver for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, taking them to and from St. Gregory School in Dorchester.
"They didn't have licenses back then," Lavery explained.
Ryan also volunteered as a fundraiser for St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton, helping to host luncheons and fashion shows.
"Whatever organization she and my father got involved in," Lavery said, "they got involved to the fullest."
Following her mother's example, Lavery goes to Mass every week and does extensive charity work.
"I guess it's been a lifeline for me as well," she said.
Ryan was born in Dorchester in 1922, the youngest of four children. She, her parents, and her three older brothers would attend Mass at St. Gregory the Great Parish "all the time."
"My father and mother were very strict," she said. "And my brothers were very kind to me."
She met her husband George when she was 16 years old. She thought he was "just most unusual," but he was "a very good Catholic."
"When you meet someone that's special," she said, "you just know."
They were introduced by mutual friends. George's father died shortly after they met, and his mother subsequently moved to another town. Despite that, he still came to visit Ryan.
"I did go out with other fellows," she said. "But that's how I knew he was the best."
George served stateside in the Army during World War II. When the war ended in 1945, they married, just as they planned. Ryan has held onto their wedding cake topper, a man in an Army uniform standing next to a woman in a wedding dress, for almost 80 years. She would put it on the cake for every anniversary, most recently for their 70th in 2015.
"I never heard them argue or get mad at each other," Lavery recalled about her parents.
The Ryans had six children, two of whom died at birth. Ryan has three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She has visited the Holy Land several times, which she described as an "unreal" experience. Around the year 2000, she visited Rome and got to shake the hand of Pope St. John Paul II during a gathering for the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
"It was just wonderful," she said. "I've had a great life. I've been very, very fortunate."
Ryan used to go bowling until she was 97, and still attends bowling matches to keep score for her team. She is part of Boston University's ongoing New England Centenarian Study, which documents people over the age of 100. Shortly before The Pilot spoke to her, some doctors from the study came to her home to take her blood and, in Ryan's words, "do whatever they do with it."
"If I can help other people, it's fine," she said. "It's great. And they were very pleasant."
Currently, Lavery has been organizing her mother's records and belongings in order to take stock of her life. When she dies, Ryan wants her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to know about the life she had and that she was "very grateful to God" for it.
"I don't know how I got here," she said, "because I don't feel like I'm 101. I feel much younger."