“Our Mary”


Mary sat on the shiny wooden bench before the great organ in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. The building was lit only by the glow of the streetlights shining through its paneled windows. Do I really dare try to play this wonderful musical instrument? she wondered. She had received permission and encouragement to play the organ from Alexander Schreiner, the Tabernacle organist, but still she hesitated.

It was a Thursday and very late. The Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir had held its usual practice and gone home. Mary thought about how a few weeks before she had finally gained enough courage to ask Brother Schreiner if she could play something on the grand organ. With a kind smile lighting his face, he told her to learn to play “Come, Come Ye Saints” note-perfect on her piano at home and then he would show her his favorite stops for the organ.

Mary patiently practiced and practiced until she could play the hymn with ease. But later when she sat down on the organ bench with Brother Schreiner after choir practice was over, she was so nervous that her clumsy fingers could scarcely play the keys. Brother Schreiner showed her the stops he used in playing the hymn, but she was reluctant to push them.

“That’s all right, Mary,” Brother Schreiner said to her, understandingly. “You stay after everyone else has gone home tonight and practice all by yourself if you’d like. I’ll show you how to close and lock the organ and you can play it to your heart’s content whenever you wish.”

Now the building was empty, the magnificent ivory keys were waiting for her fingers. Mary looked into the darkness of the big building. She had seen it filled with people hundreds of times, but tonight she was all alone. Finally she reached out and pressed the keys, praying they would sing out her memorized hymn.

It seemed to Mary that the music flew like doves out of the golden pipes and rested on the empty benches and chairs. Serenading the quiet night, she was thrilled that her fingers could cause the mighty instrument to produce such glorious sounds. She played another hymn, a piece by Bach, and then another hymn. At last she carefully closed and locked the organ and left the building. This was the first of many after-midnight concerts Mary enjoyed in the empty Tabernacle. As she played she sometimes remembered how in 1916 she had timidly gone to see Evan Stephens, the noted composer and conductor who led the choir, to ask if she might sing with the group. This was the beginning of Mary’s sixty years of service with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Today she is probably the only person living who sang with Evan Stephens.

In 1941 Mary became secretary of the choir and continued until released, at her request, late in the summer of 1976. The hundreds of choir members who came to know and love her during those sixty years always refer to her affectionately as “Our Mary.”

But the members of the choir are not the only people who think of Mary Jack as their Mary. Her love for children flowed through the pages of The Children’s Friend for nearly sixty years too. When she was still a girl in her teens, she left her home in Oakley, Idaho, to go to Salt Lake to find work. Since her father was president of the Cassia Stake there and had centered his family’s life in the Church, it was natural that Mary would seek work in one of the offices at Church headquarters.

The Primary Association needed secretarial help, and Mary was hired. It soon became apparent to Sister Louie B. Felt, General Primary President, that her quiet and modest little secretary could do far more than type. And so in 1920 Mary was called to be general secretary and a member of the Primary General Board where she served for twenty years.

Of even more importance to boys and girls, Sister May Anderson, who was then editor of The Children’s Friend and a counselor in the General Primary Presidency, discovered that Mary could write in a way that touched the hearts of children. Because there was a need for someone just like her to help prepare stories, poems, and articles for The Children’s Friend, the after-midnight organ player became associated with that magazine. She was a managing editor of the magazine late in 1970 when the First Presidency decided to ask all the auxiliaries to discontinue their magazines and transfer the publishing responsibility to the First Presidency of the Church.

Mary, who for so many years had been the “heart” of The Children’s Friend, was persuaded to stay with the new Friend staff, retiring in 1971. During those fifty-eight years that she blessed the boys and girls of the Church with her contributions to their magazine, she wrote under nine different names, her favorite being Mary Rose. One of her poems found in a 1930 issue is entitled “Clouds,” and shows Mary’s playful and imaginative nature:

The clouds are like a flock of sheep
Upon a summer day;
I see the big white woolly ones,
And little lambs at play.
I wonder what they graze upon,
And just how far they roam;
I wonder where the shepherd is
And how he’ll get them home.

Mary likes to tell the story of how The Children’s Friend began. As early as 1894 the women of the Primary wanted to publish a little magazine to be used by the teachers in giving their lessons. They asked the First Presidency if they might have permission to do so. However, the Brethren knew that a number of magazines were having financial trouble and they did not feel that women inexperienced in preparing a publication would be able to produce and sell one. However, in 1902 Sister Felt and Sister Anderson went again to the First Presidency and this time were told that they could try it, with the understanding that they would give the women their blessing but no funds. With the support of all members of the Primary General Board, Sister Felt and Sister Anderson visited a little printing office that was on the corner where Hotel Utah now stands.

The printers were discouraging. They said they would not agree to do the printing unless the women could give them cash in advance or would arrange for property to be used as a guarantee for payment. Sister Felt owned a small home and this was placed in the hands of the printers in case the magazine was not successful. During the days of planning and preparing the first issue, these two women saved every piece of string they could find. Scraps of wrapping paper were carefully ironed, folded, and laid aside with the string. When the first issues were ready for mailing, they addressed them all by hand, wrapped them into bundles with the paper, tied them with the hoarded string, and carried them in several trips the four long blocks to the post office.

Sister Anderson was asked to be editor and business manager for a period of six months at a salary of $30.00 a month. She remained with the magazine for thirty-eight years!

Gradually Sister Anderson turned more and more of The Children’s Friend work over to Mary. “Finally,” Mary said, “I was doing it all myself—every speck—the layout, the pasteup. All of it. I did it!” And while she was doing all the mechanics of preparing material for a magazine, she was also writing to the contributors, sending them copies of the Book of Mormon, and giving money from her own small salary when anyone said they needed help.

Over the years “Our Mary” worked with and for every General Primary president since Sister Felt, with the exception of Sister Naomi Shumway.

“They’ve all been wonderful,” Mary declares. “People have to be different, but they’re all wonderful.”

During the sixty years that Mary was with the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir and the fifty-eight years she was pouring out her love for children and Primary workers through the pages of The Children’s Friend, she was also spending part of her time with crippled and ill boys and girls who were being cared for in the Primary Children’s Hospital.

Mary helped in the planning with Sister Felt and Sister Anderson when the original hospital was opened in 1922. It was housed in an old home on North Temple Street that was given to the Primary for a convalescent home and equipped by the Church. There they welcomed boys and girls who needed only limited medical help, but their dream was to be able to provide a shining new fireproof hospital where all medical services could be given.

A project was launched to secure funds for such a building. While the Church, friends of the Primary, and others who loved children contributed amounts both large and small for a new building, much of the money for it was given through the efforts of Primary children. Each boy and girl was asked to buy one brick for a dime, and the children contributed more than $18,000 to the brick project. Many children, excited by the joy that comes through sharing, asked friends and family to give money for the hospital instead of buying birthday and Christmas gifts. The smallest contribution received from a child was two pennies, but that, too, was accepted with gratitude.

In order to properly handle all the funds, the Primary sisters were advised to select a board of trustees and incorporate the Primary Children’s Hospital. It was Mary R. Jack who signed those articles of incorporation and remained as secretary of the board until her release in 1970.

During those forty-eight years that Mary was so much a part of the business management of the Primary Children’s Hospital, she also blessed the patients there with her childlike faith, her humor, her many thoughtful and unrecognized acts of kindness, and her great love for the boys and girls who spent hours, weeks, and even years there. To them she was truly “Our Mary.”

Mary Jack, now in her eighty-third year, lives with her brother in a little home in Salt Lake City. There she is surrounded by thousands of letters of love and thanks she has received over the years and hundreds of souvenirs that she treasures, for they remind her of people and places she’s known through the Primary, The Children’s Friend, the choir, and the hospital. “I can’t part with any of them,” she confesses, “and so my house looks like a cross between a warehouse and a garbage dump.”

Despite a record of service probably unequalled by any woman alive today, “Our Mary” at heart is still the same shy, quiet, and modest person she was when she began her work with the Church over sixty years ago. “I haven’t done much,” she declares. “But it’s been fun, every bit of it!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jenae Smith

[illustration] Primary President May Anderson and Mary Jack

[illustration] First Primary Children’s Hospital on North Temple Street in Salt Lake City