Mary was homeless in Concord for 10 years. She died outside at age 70

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  • Rev. Peggy Schnack of St. Paul's Church receives the cremains of Mary Rittacco from Matthew Roan of Petit-Roan Funeral Home in Pembroke during the memorial service in the garden at the church on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Schnack developed a friendship with the homeless Rittacco after seeing her in the memorial garden sitting on one of the benches. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Matthew Roan of the Petit-Roan Funeral Home holds the cremated remains of Mary Rittacco, a homeless woman who died last month, before the service in the memorial garden at St. Paul’s Church on Park Street on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The bench where Mary Rittacco used to sit and sleep in the memorial garden at St. Paul's Church during her service on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Rittacco died last month of natural causes and was laid to rest in the garden. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The bench where Mary Rittacco used to sit and sleep on in the memorial garden at St. Paul's Church during her service on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Rittacco died last month of natural causes and was laid to rest in the garden. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rev. Peggy Schnack of St. Paul’s Church leads the memorial service for Mary Rittacco in the garden at the church on Tuesday. Schnack developed a friendship with Rittacco after seeing her in the memorial garden sitting on one of the benches. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Winter clothing hang from the outdoor fence of St. Paul's Church on Park Street in downtown Concord on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Rev. Peggy Schnack put out the gifted clothing for people to take after the memorial service for Mary Rittacco, a homeless woman who died last month. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Winter clothing hangs from the fence of St. Paul's Church on Tuesday. Rev. Peggy Schnack put out the gifted clothing for people to take after the service for Mary Rittacco, a homeless woman who died last month.

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/8/2020 3:59:40 PM

The icy granite bench outside St. Paul’s Church got a lot of attention Tuesday morning.

Mary Rittacco, a homeless woman who died last month, likely from natural causes, used to pray from it and sleep on it, even on winter nights. Like the bench, she could be hard and unmovable, supportive and reliable.

Her straight-talking nature and supercharged opinions were part of her charm. Her kindness and loyalty were why 25 people shivered on the brick pathway between Park and Centre streets, recalling a woman who died at the age of 70.

The Rev. Peggy Schnack spoke at the service. She joined the priesthood at St. Paul’s four months ago, coming down from Maine, and immediately struck up a friendship with an individual who, obviously, had no home.

“She was someone who liked sitting here to pray,” Schnack, pointing to the bench, said shortly after leading a 15-minute tribute. “She told me this was the place where she felt the most safe.”

There remains a lot missing from Mary’s background, and that information is surely lost forever. As Schnack said during her speech, “Her time here on earth wasn’t easy. We don’t know all of her story.”

You piece together what you can, learning that Mary was many things to many people.

First and foremost, several people at the service said, Mary was articulate, a teacher sometime in her past, and she brought her educated mind in later years to St. Paul’s Church, which she used as her base of operations.

“She was very respectful to the space here,” Schnack said. “She was a presence here, a very positive presence. Yes, she was stubborn, she had her opinions about everything. It’s because she was so well educated. She would talk about, ‘Oh, I read this book.’ I think she even brought up astrophysics one time.”

Schnack opened her remarks by asking those in attendance to shout descriptions of Mary. Funny, they said. Sarcastic, wise, stubborn, generous and lots and lots of talking, too.

“It was my first day at work and there’s Mary,” Schnack said. “So we’d talk, and talk and talk some more. It was wonderful. I didn’t know who she was. She didn’t know who I was. I didn’t yet know what we could do as a church to help.

“I got to know who Mary was,” Schnack continued. “Mary was the person who cleaned up the garbage that other people left behind here in the garden. The one who stopped kids from throwing rocks and took down messages that were inappropriate.”

Angelle Burnham of Deerfield owns a second-floor tattoo studio downtown. Mary used to relax out front of the shop. Burnham is sarcastic. The two clicked.

“She was like an earth angel,” Burnham said. “And she had these crystal blue eyes. There was something about her that just made me feel very drawn to her. She had a glow about her.”

Her glow and eyes were always part of the discussion, always fitting in somewhere. The fiery side blended with the narrative as well.

“She was very stubborn,” Burnham said. “She was a very particular person. She had a way, like she did things her way in a certain way, and that was beautiful about her, that she was very solid in her sense of self.”

Meanwhile, no one stepped forward with an obituary, and the assumption was that Mary had no living relatives.

Harold Olson of Concord works at the Friendly Kitchen, where Mary ate often. He wrote in an email, “Like most of the homeless in Concord, she didn’t exist. This is so sad.”

In a follow-up email, Olson said, “One of the problems was trying to find out information about her history and life.”

Burnham filled in some gaps. She said Mary was healthy, a believer in herbal remedies and homeopathic solutions. “She wasn’t a drinker,” Burnham said. “And she denounced drugs.”

She said Mary moved to Concord 30 years ago.

“She loved it here,” Burnham said. “She considered this her home, and she was homeless off and on, as far as I know, for 10 years. She really just didn’t like going to the shelter. Just a very stubborn lady.”

Friends said Mary acknowledged that hitting 70 last fall and being homeless during the upcoming New Hampshire winter was not a terrific combination.

Said Schnack, “She was on the street, and she was concerned with making it through another winter.”

Her cause of death remains unknown. She was discovered near the fountain in Bicentennial Square, friends said. The attendees Tuesday mentioned natural causes more than once. The Concord police were not available for comment.

At her tribute, red, blue and yellow jackets and hats for the homeless hung from the vintage iron spikes that make up the mighty barrier around the church.

Mary’s urn, a small, brown wooden box, was buried in a pre-dug area on the church grounds, near a spot she called home.

Sometimes, Schnack remembered, Mary would sit there and admire the church’s stained glass windows, shining brightly shortly after the sun had set.

“Right there, that was the bed she was on,” said Schnack, nodding toward the icy bench. “It’s where she could just pray however she felt like it. I think it was moving her spirit.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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