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When the phone rang, Marie Terese Tobin laid her rosary down and answered the call.
Her daily prayers were interrupted, but she was delighted to take time from her rosary to discuss her oldest son, Joseph, who had been named archbishop of Indianapolis on Oct. 18 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Amazingly, Joe was coming home after 21 years of serving God and the Church in Rome and throughout the world, Marie said, to minister in the Midwest.
After two decades of ministry abroad, she said, he will be living just a few hours south of the Tobin family home in Stoney Pointe, Ontario, Canada, instead of at the Vatican.
At 89, her prayers to God asking for more visits with Joe had been answered.
The mother of 13 children, Marie lost her beloved husband, Joseph, during the Blizzard of ’77 in Detroit when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack after helping many people stranded in the historic snowstorm.
It was the worst day of her life, but she resolutely pledged to continue to raise their eight daughters and five sons with love, joy and prayers instead of sorrow.
“I had one thought when they told me that Joe had died,” she said. “I thought, ‘Joe is gone, but the little kids are going to have a happy life.’
“A very holy priest at Holy Redeemer [Parish in Detroit], Father Dustin, said to me, and he was quite prophetic, ‘Your children are going to be all over the world someday. One of you had to be in heaven to watch over them,’ ” Marie said. “I believed him. He was such a holy man. So if it had to be, it had to be, and I just knew God would provide for us because he had always provided for me.”
In addition to Archbishop Tobin, several other Tobin siblings travel internationally on a regular basis as part of their job responsibilities.
“I didn’t raise our children alone,” Marie said. “Joe, their father, was always with me. We rattle off the creed, and we say we believe in the communion of saints. I lived it because I saw his hand in so much. My husband was the strongest person I ever knew and the best person, too. I came to know his holiness year by year as we were married. And he was a fun person. We always had fun at our house.”
Now, the surprising news of her oldest son’s return to the U.S. means that she can gather all of her children, their spouses and her grandchildren together more easily for family parties.
“Joe always says that a Catholic Christian is a person willing to be surprised by God,” Marie said. “And I tell you, all I am doing now is saying ‘thank you’ to God, who spoils me rotten!”
His new assignment is wonderful news, she said, because he has been away on ministry trips all over the world for such a long time.
“But Joe really has never been away from us,” Marie said. “He’s been so very close to all of his family, to the children and me. But to think of him being so close by in Indianapolis is just a wonderful, wonderful surprise.”
A Catholic mother always remembers the first time she held her babies, Marie said, “and then you offer thanks again the first time you held them after baptism. Wasn’t that another wonderful experience?”
Joe was a thoughtful and determined boy, she said, even in the second grade at Holy Redeemer School when he proudly took his younger sister, Molly, around to all the classrooms on her first day to introduce her to every teacher.
As an eighth-grader, Joe turned down a citywide scholarship to a Jesuit high school in Detroit, Marie said, because he wanted to study at St. Joseph Preparatory College, a Redemptorist school in Edgerton, Wis., then at the congregation’s Holy Redeemer College in Waterford, Wis.
“He was very adamant about wanting to become a Redemptorist priest,” she said. “My dad had two first cousins who were Redemptorists so I was very, very familiar with their life. But he was a high school boy so we knew he wasn’t making the real decision for a lifetime at that time.”
Yet, Joe answered God’s call to the Redemptorists and the priesthood after all.
“Joe has been determined since the day he was born,” Marie said, laughing. “When he would make up his mind to do something, he would do it. Fortunately, he wanted to serve the Lord. But that had nothing to do with us. It was God acting [in his life]. … I have to give credit where credit is due.”
In the golden years of her life, she continues to offer a special daily prayer.
“My prayer now all day long is ‘thank you, Lord,’ ” Marie said. “ ‘Thank you for the 13 of them.’ Each one is so important. But now that I look back, I wonder how I lived through it.”
As a parent, she said, “I try not to show anything that would discourage my children from doing things.”
Throughout his high school and college years as well as his theology studies, Marie said, Joe came home for holidays.
“He always stayed so close to his brothers and sisters,” she said. “He was always close to them. He knew what everybody was doing in school. I would say he was a consummate big brother. He’s always been so proud of his family.”
Joe loved to play sports, especially football, Marie said. “I think that also showed me and showed his dad how determined he was to go to the Redemptorist high school. They couldn’t afford [to offer] football so they played soccer. Joe was a big boy and he loved football so for him to give up playing football was something.”
Her husband also loved football, she said, and earned a position as right tackle on the Boston College team which played in the Orange Bowl in 1943.
Later, he served in the Army with teammates.
And years later, his namesake son also played right tackle in grade school.
“But Joe gave up playing football to go to the Redemptorist seminary,” Marie said. “He really wanted to be a Redemptorist. Joe is always willing to give up something for another goal. However, I have to brag at this point because St. Joe’s Prep School was state champion in soccer for the entire state of Wisconsin while he was there. They also played a lot of hockey up there, although Joe played hockey in Detroit, too.”
Joe also loved reading, she said, which pleased her as a former teacher in the Detroit public school system.
Early on, she said, “it was obvious to us that Joe was gifted by God to do a job. His father and I saw his gifts. Through both of our educations, we were able to foster the gift. I know who the giver of the gifts is.”
“My children are all so wonderful,” Marie said. “I think Joe’s special gift of his vocation has been a blessing for our family. My kids all treasure their faith and they work hard for it. Joe was the consummate big brother, but they, in turn, all support him.”
When a young Father Joe was in ministry at his home parish, she said, the Tobin siblings started a Christmas gift drive for inner city families.
“He’s been gone from Holy Redeemer Parish for 23 years,” Marie said, “and they have done it for 23 years amid the poverty that has hit the area. It’s bigger and bigger every year. This is the way they support him. They love each other a lot, and they want to help each other.”
Holy Redeemer Parish was a wonderful oasis for the Tobin family, she said. “It was marvelous. It was multicultural. It was such a wonderful, wonderful gift for our family.”
Joe came home from grade school one day, she recalled, and asked for a pair of socks for a friend who had wrapped his feet in washcloths.
Like Joe, his siblings shared their food with children who didn’t have anything to eat for breakfast or lunch.
“It was just the blessing of our life that all my children are still involved at Holy Redeemer,” Marie said. “They saw poor people—their classmates and friends—suffer and wanted to help them. It was another wonderful blessing that I thank God for. God has blessed them.”
It seems like yesterday that she met her husband, a native of Arlington, Mass., at Holy Redeemer Parish, Marie said, which was the beginning of their wonderful love story. They were married on June 23, 1951, at Holy Redeemer Church.
“I think the most powerful thing was that I knew Joe’s heart,” she said. “I knew how close he was to God. I knew I was second in our marriage. The Good Lord was first.”
So it really wasn’t surprising to Joe and Marie that God called their oldest son to serve him and help the poor as a Redemptorist priest.
Now, Marie is looking forward to visiting Indianapolis for the first time with all of her children for her oldest son’s installation Mass.
“It’s wonderful to have him home,” she said. “He told me, ‘Mother, we were 15 hours apart. Now we’re one hour away’ ” by air travel.
Throughout her life, Marie has had a devotion to Jesus, Mary, St. Joseph and St. Thérèse of Liseaux.
“My favorite saying of the Little Flower is, ‘Everything is a gift,’ ” she said. “I know [ministering in the Archdiocese of] Indianapolis will be a gift for Joe’s soul.”
Each day, Marie said, she puts God first in her life, and prays the rosary to thank the Lord for her “wonderful, joyful, faith-filled” family.
“My children learned to love the poor, and Joe made his vows to serve the poor,” Marie said. “I’ve led an ordinary life of a mother, and I just appreciate that God planted me here and wanted this gift for me. The Seven Sorrows of Mary have been so close to me. Mary didn’t lie down—she wasn’t prostrate—in front of the Cross. She stood there with her Son, and isn’t that what we all have to do?” †