Marge Brehl, seen here in her 1957 high school graduation picture, had a very productive “second life” helping others. She died at age 77. Photo courtesy of the Brehl family.

Comment: Aunt Marge certainly made the most of her 'second life'

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  • December 12, 2016

Oscar Wilde famously said “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Witty, for sure, but Wilde was wrong. With each new Christmas without them, I find myself missing my mother and father ever more.

Even more so this year because during Advent my dad’s baby sister passed and earlier in the year we lost mom’s big brother; both wonderful people and two strong links to my parents.

As head of a large family, Uncle Martin was special, but never-married Aunt Marge had an extraordinary life worth mentioning, especially in this season of giving unto others.

At her funeral at the Saint Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis, several hundred people were there for her – and her alone. (It’s common for funerals to be crowded with friends supporting surviving children or spouses, but Marge had neither.) Many in attendance told me how important and inspirational Marge was to their lives.

I knew Marge as a fun and loving aunt who loved to laugh, especially at herself. And she had a biting wit, particularly if you took yourself a little too seriously. For example, at a family reunion one of her brothers declared himself the family patriarch and Marge immediately piped up: “I didn’t vote for him!”

There were no airs about Marge, someone incredibly open-minded and progressive. Now, there was a side of Marge I knew about, but didn’t realize just how inspirational it was until I spoke with so many people who had been directly impacted by her.

Forty years ago, Marge almost died from her addiction to alcohol. It was so touch-and-go in hospital that doctors told the family that prayer was what was most needed. She made it through the critical hours and sometime later, her brother, Bill, and his wife, Dawn, took her hundreds of miles away to St. Marys Hospital in Minnesota, one of the leading addiction centres in the U.S. at the time.

Marge was at the abyss and she was provided with a path towards a bridge. But she had to build the bridge and then cross it to find a second life. It wasn’t easy, especially the first year, but she did and it turned into a wonderful new life.

Somewhat ironically, Marge had a phobia about real bridges and she feared driving across them. Yet, it was the metaphoric bridge she crossed that saved her life 40 years ago.

And over those four decades, she gave inspirational bridge-building tools to so many. One was quoted in her eulogy: “As I battled my way out of years of drugs and alcohol addiction, Marge made me feel like I was worth something. Without Marge, I would be long dead. Instead, I am over 20 years clean and sober. Love is too small a word for how I feel about her.” Similar things were told to me before and after her funeral.

All through Marge’s “second life” she regularly attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings; at first because she needed the support, but then because she became such great support for others. It was an obligation she would not relinquish until the cancer weakened her so much she could not attend.

A cynic once said: “Life is a bridge of groans over a river of tears.” That wasn’t Marge. She turned life into a bridge of hope over a river of cheers for many people, not just those with addictions but anyone she met.

As I sat at her funeral, I began to look around and think about Saint Joan of Arc Church. There were no pews or kneelers, simply chairs. There was no crucifix, merely a giant cross hanging above the altar. Fr. James Cassidy welcomed all people, not simply “practicing” Catholics. He was inclusive, regardless of faith.

I thought this place is so Marge because she loved people and their imperfections. Then I thought of what Pope Francis said earlier this year: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Later, I Googled the church and found its slogan is “We Welcome You Wherever You Are On Your Journey” and that fit Marge to a T, too.

As I continued to Google, I discovered Catholic fundamentalists do not like the church and call it a place of heresy. For example, it “is a bastion of Catholic mockery [and] contains no church teaching or content directed towards proper Christian formation. Although you'll find a ‘flying Jesus’, you will not come across any images of crucifixes or our Lady, or anything else that will remind you that the site is the property of a Catholic church.”

Like Marge, the St. Joan of Arc Church accepts you as you are, warts and all. Didn’t someone born more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem feel the same way?

St. Joan of Arc parishioners travel great distances – people living in 238 different zip codes attend this church – to be at one of the six masses each weekend. Other churches could learn a thing or two from this church, just as so many people who were inspired by my Aunt Marge.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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  • Patrick Brooker

    Thank you for your story on Marge. We lost a Marge last month. Our Marge and my wife grew up together through grade school and high school in Cleveland Ohio. She had a difficult first marriage that ended badly and she fell into despair and depression. We lost touch with her as we moved to Ontario.

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  • Patrick Brooker

    It was at her funeral last month that I heard her story and the second life she found with her second husband in his Evangelical Presbyterian church. She was very engaged in Youth Ministry and worked with many souls to give them direction and purpose as well as raising three sons. RIP Marge.

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