By Christine Bordelon
“Faith, trust and strength” are among the virtues Sandra Gourrier uses to describe Alma “Puddin’” McNamara, this year’s 2018 Regina Matrum “Woman of the Year” in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“She is secure in God’s love; she is committed to prayer, penance, serving her family and community,” Gourrier said. “She fills the lives of many people with hope, consolation and joy.”
McNamara, 79, a mother of four, a 40-year prayer group member and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion to the homebound, will be honored May 14 at a special 7 p.m. Mass at St. Angela Merici, where she is a founding parishioner.
“I never even in my wildest imagination imagined me in their number,” McNamara said of the past Regina Matrum winners, many of whom she knows. “I think we have our faith in common. … I always admired the strength of these women, wishing I could be like that.”
Those who know McNamara admire her strength, especially when enduring the loss of family members.
“Her personal prayer life is quite evident in all that she does,” said long-time friend Marilyn Quirk, a fellow St. Angela parishioner and Magnificat member. “She has been admirable in the ways she handles both joy and suffering with grace. She has imaged Our Lady as she has walked through the joys and sorrows of family life.”
Puddin’ said her ability to help others was guided by God.
“This is where I felt God called me – to help in any situation,” she said. “If you love God, and God impresses something on your heart that this is what he wants you to do, you try to do it. I don’t think I have any strength to do it. … I would feel a nudge from the Holy Spirit that someone had a need and I could help in some way.”
Surprised by the news
McNamara learned of her honor, bestowed by the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs (CCSCC), at an 11 a.m. Mass one Sunday at St. Angela. CCSCC president Fern Carr, a fellow parishioner, announced the winner at the end of Mass. McNamara wears hearing aids and wasn’t sure her name was called. But when she looked at her daughter Joni and saw tears in her eyes, “I knew then it had to be me. I felt like this wasn’t real,” she said.
Carr then hugged her and presented her with flowers.
It took two days for McNamara finally feel worthy of the recognition.
“I kept thinking it was a mistake; that I have to go to confession to make a renewed commitment to live up to this,” she said. But, she thought, God and Mary didn’t have to allow the honor, but they did, and she gained peace with the recognition.
Always a caregiver
McNamara, a cradle Catholic, attended Holy Name of Jesus School in New Orleans through high school, taught by the Sisters of Mercy, who established her faith foundation, along with her family.
She met her husband, A.J. “Buddy” McNamara – three years her senior – when he worked at her father’s hardware store as a Jesuit High School student. They married in December 1957, moving to Baton Rouge so he could finish an engineering degree, eventually returning to New Orleans.
As a young mom in her late 20s, McNamara began searching for something missing in her faith but didn’t know how to find it. While on a doctor’s appointment in downtown New Orleans one day, she ducked into Immaculate Conception (Jesuits’) Church on Baronne Street.
“The minute I walked in, the difference between the noisiness and commotion on the street and the silent, dimly lit church, I knew this was the something I was looking for,” she said. “I just relished the peaceful silence. … The Holy Spirit was beginning to lead me in my adult life.”
Then, a fellow St. Angela Ladies Auxiliary officer invited her to a charismatic prayer meeting at Loyola University.
“I heard people saying that night about being so close to God that they would open Scripture and he would speak to them,” McNamara said. “I knew this is what I was looking for.”
She met Jesuit Father Harold Cohen on a second visit and prayed with him, hoping her prayer for healing would reach God.
“As he was praying, I began having a mental image of a smokestack going up from my head to God,” she said. “I knew these were my sins, and I thought, ‘Oh no, my prayer can’t get past all that coal to reach God.’”
She went home, opened the Bible and the words: “I am the Truth and Life” came to her. The next day, more words came: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” At a prayer meeting that evening, “deeper faith and mental charity” became her fervent prayer instead of healing. The Holy Spirit had sent her the grace most needed.
“It showed that God knew every hair on my head,” she said. “He showed me what was my deepest need, when I thought it was something totally different.”
McNamara formed a prayer group with St. Angela parents who wanted “to learn as much as we could learn” about faith and taught CCD in the parish, both recommendations by the Loyola group, and later got involved in Magnificat, an outgrowth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of New Orleans, and became a Life in the Spirit leader and a Bible study and Alpha program participant.
“Maybe that’s why the Lord allowed me to know him so intimately, that I would have the strength for when these later things came,” she said. This included “the grace” to care for her mother in her home for more than a decade (seven years with Alzheimer’s); losing her son, Dwight, an attorney, in 2005; and in 2014 losing her daughter, Nancy, a nurse; husband Buddy, an attorney, state representative and judge for 30 years; and son-in-law Benny Parent.
She said developing a prayer life, daily Mass, frequenting the sacraments and involvement in community groups consistent with the Catholic faith have been “holy insulation” for what life has thrown at her.
“It was all the leading of the Holy Spirit,” McNamara said. “I don’t know how it happened, but he knew, step by step, and surrounded me with wonderful people.”