It was 1983, in the last years of the Cold War, when 21-year-old Marla Lucas’ eyes filled with tears at the sight of a political cartoon prepared to be printed in the Washington Post criticizing then-Pope John Paul II during his activism against communism in Poland.

Lucas, who is now known as Mother Marla, was fresh out of college at the time and had recently experienced a reversion to her Catholic faith and was “on fire” for Christ, she told CNA on April 22.

What hurt Mother Marla the most about the drawing was her own perceived involvement in its creation. She was a research assistant for the cartoonist who drew it, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and “unrepentant liberal,” the late Herbert Block, commonly known as “Herblock.”

“I felt like an accomplice,” she said.

It wasn’t only Block’s criticism of Pope John Paul II that bothered Mother Marla, it was also his cartoons in support of abortion. 

“I wanted to be a journalist to spread the truth. Mr. Block was a kind person and personable, but I just felt like this was against my faith,” she said.

Before the cartoon of the pope, Mother Marla had been discerning religious life and spent a day visiting the Daughters of St. Paul at their convent in Alexandria, Virginia.

After that day, her decision was made. She was going to apply.

But a short time following the application process, Mother Marla received news that she was not admitted by the Daughters of St. Paul because she is deaf in one ear. 

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“The provincial’s reasoning was that she didn’t want to jeopardize my good ear with the work that I would be doing,” Mother Marla said.

A friend then suggested Mother Marla look into the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate where, months later, she would say goodbye to her position at the Post and enter religious life in December 1983.

Recounting her last days at the newspaper in the fall of that year, Mother Marla said she went to her boss, Block, and his assistant and said she had some news to share. 

Mother Marla recounted their response: “‘You’re getting married?’” 

“Well...” Mother Marla said back to them. “Sort of. I’m marrying Jesus.”

She said both of their jaws “dropped open” and they looked at her with “almost horror and disbelief.”

“And that last month at the Post was agony because all of a sudden, whatever they had against the Catholic Church, I was absorbing it. They didn’t throw me a going away party,” she said with a chuckle.

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She made her first vows in 1986 and her final vows in 1993. 

Mother Marla “loved the life” in her religious community and had several assignments on the East Coast including in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. The Parish Visitors are a New York-based congregation that has the charism of being contemplative-missionaries to the home.

But it was during her time in Pennsylvania she began deepening her awareness and affection for her Lebanese heritage as a Maronite Catholic.

Mother Marla was always aware of her Maronite roots. Her mother was from Lebanon and her father’s parents were from Lebanon. There wasn’t a Maronite church near her childhood home in Poughkeepsie, New York, so her family attended a Latin-rite parish. But a Maronite priest would make his way up to the Lebanese community there a few times a year to minister to them. 

During her assignment in Pennsylvania, Mother Marla attended a series of Lenten talks in Scranton at a Maronite church. The speaker for the week was Maronite priest Father Gregory Mansour.

“I was very impressed with his spiritual teachings and I said, ‘This is a man of prayer. This man really practices his priesthood.’ And we struck up a friendship that God used,” she said.

The two would occasionally cross paths and keep in touch over the years. Mother Marla sent Mansour a note of congratulations in 2004 when Pope John Paul II appointed him as bishop for the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn.

Mother Marla and Mansour wouldn’t reconnect again until a few years later, in Washington, D.C., where Mother Marla spent a year taking classes at the Dominican House of Studies. 

Twenty-four years a nun at this point, Mother Marla was not on an assignment at a particular parish, so she chose to attend Mass at the Maronite church in the city, Our Lady of Lebanon Parish.

The priest at the parish approached Mother Marla and asked her if she would head the parish’s religious education program. In her previous assignment, she served as a director of religious education for several years.

“And I said, ‘Oh Father, I’m here for other reasons.’”

But the priest insisted, so Mother Marla took it to prayer, and with the permission of her superior, discerned that God was asking her to head the program. 

She then asked the rector of the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary, adjacent to the parish, if she could take some classes to learn more about Maronite spirituality and liturgy to help her with catechesis.

He agreed.

Just a few weeks after she accepted the position, Mother Marla again crossed paths with Bishop Mansour while the prelate was visiting the parish. 

Mansour was happy to hear that Mother Marla was heading the program. But the next thing he said to her would change the course of her life forever.

“He said to me, ‘Sister Marla Marie, would you help me found a Maronite congregation of sisters for our Church?”

“And it was just like that. He just said, ‘Hello, it’s nice to see you. How are you?’ And then the next thing was, ‘Would you found a religious community?’”

Mother Marla was “startled.” But at the same time, she felt “a deep abiding peace.”  

“It was the same peace I had 25 years prior, when I realized my call to be a religious,” she said.

Mother Marla told Mansour she would take his request to prayer and discernment. In time, she agreed and requested leave from her congregation to pursue this vocation.

On June 1, 2008, Sister Marla became Mother Marla Marie, foundress of the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light.

The sisters were founded to “radiate Christ’s love and light to our people,” Mother Marla said. “Our life is rooted in Eucharistic prayer and devotion to the Mother of God."

Fast approaching the community’s 16-year anniversary — or “sweet 16” as Mother Marla calls it — the sisters are involved in a variety of ministries including facilitating conferences and parish missions, teaching catechism classes, leading youth and young adult ministry, bringing solace and prayer to those with grief, and accompanying those passing to the next life.

Sister Therese Touma, 40, joined the congregation in 2010 and Sister Emily Lattouf, 29, joined in 2019.

The sisters encounter and serve more than 1,000 people each year, including hundreds of children and young adults in their several ministries, Mother Marla said. Last year the sisters visited 10 parishes for missions across the Maronite Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, which spans from Maine to Florida. 

Sister Emily, who took her first vows in 2023, said that “Mother Marla Marie is an amazing and courageous woman.”

“I admire her courage to leave the world she knew in her previous community to begin this new foundation. I am blessed to have her as a mother-servant, friend, and formator,” she said.

The Maronite Servants are now located in suburban Dartmouth, Massachusetts, located in close proximity to several Maronite parishes and dozens of Roman Catholic parishes where they serve in ministry.

“I keep looking at my life and thinking, ‘Wow, that happened to me?’ Isn’t it amazing how God works? And he does that in your life too, and in everybody’s life. If people stop to look and be attentive, we can see that the Holy Spirit is always acting. We just have to give him room,” Mother Marla said.