Cheverus profiles: Mary Svoboda of St. Mary of the Annunciation in Danvers

This week, we begin a regular series profiling Catholics from around the archdiocese who received the 2023 Cheverus Award for service to the church in Boston.

DANVERS -- There was a time when Mary Svoboda was "a wishy-washy Catholic."

She went to Mass and raised her children in the Catholic faith, but she was never too involved in her parish, St. Mary of the Annunciation in Danvers. When she had to care for her husband Alexandru, who suffered from dementia during the last 10 years of his life, she couldn't attend Mass at all. He died in 2008. Her 29-year-old son Brad, who was in the Army Reserves, had already died while on a humanitarian mission in Panama. He had served two years in Iraq and came back safe, but volunteered for the Panama mission in January 2007. He was killed in a Humvee accident a month later. The cause of death was a miscommunication: The driver of the Humvee put on his left turn signal, which in Panama means that the driver is giving the vehicle behind him permission to pass from the left. The driver of an 18-wheeler behind the two men moved to pass, and both were killed.

That was when Svoboda "heard the voice of God."

"It wasn't until everything with my son and my husband that it finally dawned on me," she told The Pilot in a Feb. 1 interview. "Realizing that God was real and he was there for me. And so I became more and more active and more into it."

She has been an avid volunteer at St. Mary's ever since. Her last job before retiring was as a secretary in the parish rectory. Every Sunday and Thursday after Mass, she provides coffee, cake, donuts, juice, and friendly conversation as part of the parish Hospitality Ministry. Every Tuesday and some Sundays, she serves as a lector and is a minister of the Eucharist every Friday and Saturday.

"Volunteering does as much for me as it does for anybody I help," she said.

Svoboda, 77, was one of 151 people who received Cheverus Awards in 2023. The annual archdiocesan awards honor those who have dedicated their lives to serving the Catholic Church in Boston.

Father Michael Doyle, pastor of the Danvers Catholic Collaborative, nominated Svoboda for the award. He told The Pilot in a Jan. 29 interview that "she just does an awful lot in the parish."

"We could use more people like that," he said, "that want to do more and not less."

On Feb. 1, Svoboda was doing her usual hospitality work, chatting and laughing with familiar friends after Mass.

"Mary is a woman for all seasons," said parishioner Bob Lafleur.

"She is the true meaning of service," said parishioner Judi Shooter, "because if anything needs to be done, she jumps up and does it."

"I know all these people," Svoboda said. "I know everybody's name, and I stop and talk with everybody. And it's nice for me just as well as everybody else because it's always good to socialize."

Every Thursday before COVID, parishioners would go to New Brothers Restaurant and Deli for coffee and conversation as faithfully as they attended Mass. After COVID, fewer people could make it to the restaurant due to medical reasons. The parish didn't seem as close.

"The same people came to Mass every day, yet they didn't know each other," Svoboda said. "And I thought that was kind of sad. You're here every day, and no one knows each other, and there are some people who are really quiet, so they don't really talk."

When she does hospitality, she makes sure to push the tables together so everyone is close enough to get to know each other.

"I like the strong bond between everybody," she said. "Everybody knows each other. We're friends now, as opposed to a bunch of strangers coming to Mass."

Svoboda was born in Norwood and grew up in Burlington and Salem. She moved to Danvers with her husband Alexandru after they civilly married in 1976. They got married in the parish in 1980. Alexandru was an immigrant from Romania with a very strong accent. Svoboda, then his coworker, seldom spoke with him because she couldn't understand what he was saying. Eventually, though, they hit it off.

"At first it was slow," she said, "but we did good."

She was "shocked" when she opened the envelope and read the letter telling her that she had won the Cheverus Award. She said attending the November 2023 awards ceremony at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross was different than anything she had ever done.

"I mean, to go up there, and the cardinal to be putting that ribbon around your neck," she recalled. "Man, that was beautiful there. It was a wonderful ceremony."