Parting is a sweet sorrow for Mary Jeffcoat
By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON — Bishop David B. Thompson is fond of the show business saying, “It’s nice to deal with professionals,” particularly when it comes to Mary Jeffcoat.
“From the first moment I met Mary, I knew that I was in the presence of competence, commitment of talent, great faith in God and in the church, and a great desire to present God and the church as they should be presented to the people,” he said.
Jeffcoat was the retired prelate’s director of the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Communications and Information for more than nine years. On June 30, she will leave her nearly 10 year avocation-turned-vocation to concentrate on her other passion, her family — husband, Allen, and two daughters, Ann and Sarah.
A consummate professional, Jeffcoat is known as a dedicated, competent and faith-filled individual who shared her gifts by spreading the Good News of the Catholic faith in South Carolina through the media.
What started out as a consultant’s position in November of 1990 turned into a directorship by January 1991, regardless of the fact that she had written Bishop Thompson a scathing letter of complaint two months prior.
“He had moved our pastor to another church,” she laughed. “He never mentioned it and neither did I.”
In her more diplomatic tenure, Jeffcoat restructured and reorganized her office to provide strategy and consistency in diocesan communications. She helped turn The New Catholic Miscellany into a nationally recognized medium for the diocese, was grace under fire in dealing with the press on volatile issues, and was successful in getting South Carolina Catholicism positive national notice.
In 1999, the diocesan spokeswoman received a Papal Honor for her work — one milestone of many in her life which includes involvement throughout the entire Synod of Charleston process and being elected as chairperson of the National Council of Catholic Bishops Communication Committee and Advisory Board. The board is made up of men and women religious and people of all nationalities.
“It’s a real microcosm of the church in the United States,” she said. “To see collaboration at that level is to see Vatican II being lived.”
As one of his advisors, Bishop Thompson said he could rely on Jeffcoat.
“She was a particularly astute handler of public relations for me with the various government offices, political parties, and social issues,” he said.
When it came to issues such as speaking out about the death penalty, pro-life activities, or sexual abuse scandals, Bishop Thompson could count on her for guidance in providing an informative and inspirational message.
“Especially on being up front, honest, direct and diplomatic,” he said. “We went through many challenging situations that would be daunting and overwhelming to the average person. Mary managed to measure up to those challenges.
“Underneath her gifts, the underpinning of it, has been her deep faith in God and her church,” he said. “I felt that she had deep faith in me which made my working with her very easy, very reassuring. She is a living example of fire tried gold.”
The bishop said he could continue in her praise but had to “stop short of canonization.”
While Jeffcoat said that her work provided her with a different view of the church from what is seen from the pew, she had to learn about its human side.
“What helps me is to go back to the Gospel and read about the apostles and the time Jesus had,” she said. “The arrogance of St. Paul or the things St. Peter did, you see the humanity of the people that Christ chose. God chooses flawed human beings. That is all he has to be leaders of the church on earth.”
She also followed some good advice, holding onto the idea that God can use any situation for good. During times of difficulty or scandal, every press release held some scriptural message of healing.
Jeffcoat was also involved in making history with the recently released documentary, “Fire Tried Gold” about Catholicism in South Carolina. She worked closely with the producers helping them find locations, create and promote the video.
When she started working at the diocese, the director of communications lived in Myrtle Beach. She and her family later moved to Charleston so their daughter could attend Bishop England High School but returned to the Grand Strand. In those first years, however, Jeffcoat drove two hours to work and ended up sleeping on a pull-out couch in the office.
Our Lady of Mercy Sister Bridget Sullivan invited her to step off of the chancery grounds and stay with her. The two women were the first to serve on a bishop’s curia in the history of the diocese and shared many awesome experiences.
“Mary’s dedication to her job and the sacrifice she made to commute to Charleston and give up time with her family, except the few years she lived down here, was very inspirational to me,” Sister Bridget said. “That’s something that those of use in religious communities do all the time, go where we are sent. To see a lay person do that is very inspiring. It showed her commitment, not only to her job, but to the church.”
Sister Bridget also worked with Jeffcoat during the Synod. “She is a faithful daughter of the church,” she said. “I just wait to see what the next adventure will be. Whatever she does, she will do it well.”
Rosalyn Wilkins, administrative assistant to Msgr. James A. Carter, pastor of Jeffcoat’s former parish, Christ the King, has worked with her in a variety of offices since 1991. She met Jeffcoat when Msgr. Carter was vicar for clergy.
“We dealt with difficult times for the diocese,” Wilkins explained. “Mary was always careful that communications that went out were accurate. She was very good at what she did. We worked hand-in-hand to deal with issues where you needed somebody you could trust. She was willing to go that extra mile, whatever it took to get the job done.”
Jeffcoat’s own administrative assistant, Stephanie Paetsch, said working with her was a learning experience.
“She is a competent person with great professionalism,” she said. “She won’t ask anyone to do anything that she would not do herself.”
Msgr. Carter had the unusual position of being Jeffcoat’s pastor, co-worker and eventual supervisor. In this multifaceted relationship, the priest was quick to identify her strengths.
“She is rooted very soundly in her faith which is why she is able to project a message of compassion simultaneously with a sense of justice,” he said. “Anybody who works for the church has to have a strong faith because the more you work for the church the more you recognize how human, how fragile, how fallible people are.”
Like the bishop, Msgr. Carter counted on the communications director’s knowledge.
“She has such real insight into things that reflect a real wisdom and a great deal of experience,” he said. “She’s very genuine. I know that this job has been difficult for her from time-to-time. She has dealt with very delicate and difficult emotional matters in which actions could be misinterpreted, particularly if you are trying to be considerate and forthright.”
Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, a fellow curia member, also attributes much of her abilities to Jeffcoat’s faith.
“Whatever agenda the church or the diocese had seemed like good news to her, and she wanted it to be broadcast to as wide a level as possible,” he said. “She did it all with good humor. She was never frazzled in a crisis. She approached it with an attitude of ‘let’s tell everybody what happened, how we are going to deal with it and how it is not going to knock us off course anymore than the fumbles and foibles of the apostles.’ She was a good example of a highly skilled woman in a significant position in the church.”
Aside from what she calls all the “aha! moments” where she received notice or awards, Jeffcoat becomes emotional when describing the thing that gave her the most satisfaction.
“Working with the communications staff, the teamwork, the friendship, the community that resulted from working through difficult and challenging situations built relationships on blood, sweat and tears,” she said. “I leave here a much better person. I think the diocese has done much more for me than I have ever done for the diocese.”