Hazel Coleman is 100, and she can’t see or hear, but inside the back bedroom of her daughter’s shotgun house on Magazine Street, as the shoppers and cars whiz by, she has a protected place on God’s holy mountain.
Every morning, around 5 a.m., Hazel’s daughter Mary Shelly hears a familiar voice cry out while she is lying in her bed in the front bedroom.
“I can hear her say, ‘I love you, Lord, I love you!’ and she hollers it out because she probably figures I’m asleep,” Mary, 73, said last week. “But I can hear her. I just look up and say, ‘Thank you, Lord!’”
Thankfulness has been the fulcrum of Hazel’s life, which for the last 91 years in New Orleans included worshiping every Sunday at Holy Ghost Church and later at St. Joan of Arc Church.
Hazel’s dad was Catholic and her mother was Methodist. Every Sunday, she would walk to early Mass at St. Joan of Arc and then come home in time to attend Sunday school and services at Haven United Methodist Church.
Hazel’s day always started in the darkness but with a positional purpose.
“When I get up, I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun and say a prayer,” Hazel said, sitting on her sofa surrounded by pictures of her eight children, 23 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren. “The first thing I say is, ‘Lord, have mercy on me,’ and then I say my prayers – the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.”
The walls of the house are adorned with so many photographs of children, the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart of Jesus that Mary says she won’t ever have to worry about painting.
Hazel’s husband Iley, a carpenter, was African Methodist Episcopal, but he didn’t go to church.
Every Sunday, Hazel would get up early for 6:30 a.m. Mass, and Iley would escort her the 10 blocks to St. Joan of Arc but not go in. After Mass, Hazel scurried back home to get her eight kids ready for 8:30 a.m. Mass.
Mary said she and her siblings learned early about her mother’s miracle of the loaves and the fish.
“She was always in the kitchen,” Mary said. “We’re still trying to figure it out now how she worked her magic in the kitchen. She would call the neighbors and say, ‘I cooked red beans today. Come eat some red beans.’”
Neighbors who couldn’t read or write came to Hazel’s house and asked her to read a letter they had received or write a check for them.
Hazel’s kids also learned from an early age what Holy Thursday was all about when elderly neighbors would drop by.
“My mother made us clean their feet and clip their toenails,” Mary recalled. “My brother and I used to say, ‘You go first.’ And my mother would say, ‘I don’t care who goes first. Y’all are going to clean their feet. If you don’t do it today, you’ll do it tomorrow.’ She taught us through her actions every day.”
For the last three years, Hazel has been under the in-home care of Notre Dame Hospice. Deacon Brent Bourgeois of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux makes a Communion call every Wednesday and comes away floored by the faith of a woman whose life is an uninterrupted prayer.
“We think about going blind or losing our hearing as a handicap,” Deacon Bourgeois said. “Sometimes we need to look and say, you know what, God didn’t take away her sight; he took away her distractions.”
One of the amazing things about Hazel’s lack of hearing is that when Deacon Bourgeois gets to the point in the Communion service to pray the Our Father, Hazel senses the timing of the prayer and repeats it word for word.
“One time we were finished and I said the final blessing, and she told me, ‘Now, it’s over. Go in peace!” Deacon Bourgeois said.
When Hazel turned 100 in March, the St. Patrick’s Day parade passed in front of her house. The family draped a large birthday banner with her picture on the front porch, and each float stopped in front of the house and belted out “Happy Birthday.”
Hazel stayed in her back bedroom.
“If I can’t go to Mass, I can’t go to a parade,” she said.
Mary says with so many kids to raise, her mother never really had a bedroom to herself until now.
“When I hear my mother say, ‘I love you, Lord,’ and I’m in my bed thinking, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ it’s like God is putting that fence all around her,” Mary said. “This is her sanctuary.”
Right before her husband Iley passed away – just before their 50th wedding anniversary – he converted to the Catholic faith.
“I think he saw that after being with my mother all those years, it rubs off,” Mary said.
Hazel’s father, the Catholic who led her into the faith, was a jazz musician. Hazel cared for her father in her home in the final months of his life.
All the grandkids would gather around his bed each night and listen to him tell stories. He would get up to play the clarinet, the cornet, the bass and the piano.
“Before he died, he got out his violin and played, ‘Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, let me stand,’” Mary said. “All of us were around the bed. When we all had disappeared out of the room, it wasn’t an hour until my mom came to us and said, ‘Poppa just passed away.’ It was a wonderful going home.”
Hazel is ready.
“I feel good,” she says. “God is taking care of me. I’m doing fine. No aches, no pains, I’m satisfied. God will make a way. Just trust him.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.