“Is that one of your Irish knit sweaters?” a soft, sweet voice asked. Contagious laughter and easy conversation followed. Leaning in with full attention, Mary Farrell welcomes each person she comes across by name.
As a woman behind a majority of Winona’s major events and organizations, Farrell tends to happily remain outside of the spotlight.
While attending events such as Minnesota Marine Art Museum lectures, Great River Shakespeare Festival performances, and Winona State University and Saint Mary’s University plays, Farrell walks into a room and knows more than half of the crowd.
Originally from Hoyt Lakes, Minn., Farrell, 52, first came to Winona as a student. Farrell graduated in 1981 from Winona State University, majoring in history and minoring in art photography.
As a single woman, Farrell said she feels like she belongs to the city of Winona itself and has a strong connection to the community, great friends, and—specifically—the Catholic Worker House where her heart truly lies.
“I feel very enriched,” Farrell said. “All my needs get met through getting involved.”
From working at the Catholic Worker House every Monday, talking on the radio to promote upcoming events, sponsoring a friend becoming Catholic, weekly committee meetings and her job at Visit Winona as visitor services coordinator, Farrell touches many local entities.
“I like to be plugged in,” Farrell said. “I don’t understand when people say there is nothing going on in our community.”
Working at Visit Winona is a change in pace from Farrell’s busy lifestyle. In a tiny office in the basement of the Winona County History Center, Farrell works isolated from others in the building. While Farrell is attentive to tasks at hand, she admits to slipping upstairs for a visit to say hello to staff members and volunteers of the Winona County Historical Society or fellow Visit Winonan Pat Mutter.
While attending WSU, Farrell became actively involved in the Newman Center, working closely with Priest Dan Corcoran.
Through her found faith during college, Farrell decided to embark on a pilgrimage around the country to visit various Catholic Worker Houses for one year following graduation. Starting in Winona and moving west, Farrell took photographs of volunteers at Catholic Worker Houses in 25 cities, including Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and New York City.
Farrell said she hoped to challenge herself while incorporating her two loves: the Catholic Worker House and photography.
“It felt like the right time and I felt free,” said Farrell.
The small-town girl at heart, Farrell found herself in booming metropolises, helping her gain courage and allowing her to learn independence.
“The biggest challenge was to be in that environment,” Farrell said. “I changed locations every two weeks, going from place to place, and starting over with new people.”
Farrell has taken photographs all over the U.S. as well as Ireland, Italy and Mexico, but Winona feels most natural to her.
“This is my lifeline,” Farrell said. “I feel at home here.”
The accomplished photographer regularly shares her images on social networking sites as well as in the Winona Post and Visit Winona, but family and friends alone don’t revere her images. Farrell’s images of Winona lakes, bridges and boathouses were recently on display in the Ben Miller Lobby at Saint Mary’s University.
Despite her passion behind the camera, Farrell’s faith continues to usher many of her life choices.
Starting the first Catholic Worker House in Winona in 1992 was a dream come true for Farrell. Farrell lived in the house herself for 10 years, and now returns weekly to visit her second family. Farrell also started a second home, Bethany House, used as the primary residence today.
Adam August, 21, a former guest at the Catholic Worker House, said Farrell is someone who holds a deep passion for people as well as life. August said he likes to joke with Farrell, especially about her small addiction.
“Mary loves her sweets,” August laughed.
Farrell said when it comes to people she does not look at who is poor, homeless or more fortunate; everyone is on the same level in her eyes.
Longtime friend of eight years, Lea Karlssen, said if she could describe Farrell in one word it would be gracious.
“She is really open-hearted to people, and a little bit unassuming,” Karlssen said. “She does not need to be the center of attention.”
Karlssen also remarked on Farrell’s inherited 17-year-old cat, not surprised Farrell took the aged animal in. Farrell said it was not an instant connection between herself and the cat at the start, but it eventually grew into a companionship. Farrell is head over heels for her now.
“She’s low maintenance which is perfect,” Farrell said. “She is somewhat like me; she knows how to take care of herself.”