Maria Leal is the S.C. Catholic Woman of the Year

WALTERBORO — Maria Benavides Leal gave the simplest of answers when asked why she has devoted so much of her life to serving the church, both on her own and through membership in the women’s group at St. Anthony Church in Walterboro.

“I never considered it anything special — it is what needs to be done,” she said. “It’s my duty, a blessing to help the church.”

Mrs. Leal, 86, was named South Carolina Catholic Woman of the Year at the group’s 79th annual convention in Hilton Head on March 28. She also was named woman of the year by the Lowcountry Deanery.

She was presented with the Our Lady of Good Counsel Medal by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and Father William F. Pentis, spiritual moderator for the SCCCW, at the awards banquet.

Mrs. Leal said the award was a complete surprise to her.

“I wasn’t prepared for it. I hadn’t won anything before,” she said in a recent interview with The Miscellany at her home in Walterboro. “I never considered what I did to be anything special. It’s an awesome feeling to win this.”

Her six daughters — Marcella Baker, Pressie Carter, Sally Plover, Irene Craven, Manuela Mills and Marianne Holmes — all say the award was a long time coming and is a fitting tribute to their mother’s faith-filled life. Five of the daughters live in Walterboro, and two attend St. Anthony with Mrs. Leal. Plover, who lives in Carpenter, Wy., flew in for the award ceremony.

Mrs. Leal, who is Mexican-American, was born in San Patricio, Texas, and married Felix Leal in 1941. She is the mother of 11 children, four of whom have died. A son, Macario, lives in Texas.

She also has 21 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren.

The Leals moved to South Carolina in 1952 because Mr. Leal had a job with a company that was trying to revitalize the rice planting industry in Colleton and Beaufort counties. The company failed, but the family stayed and moved from their home on a former plantation in Beaufort County to Walterboro, where Mr. Leal found work fixing diesel engines and heavy machinery used in the logging industry.

Mrs. Leal became a charter member of the Catholic Women’s Club at St. Anthony shortly after moving to Walterboro in 1953.

The Maryknoll Sisters were serving at St. Anthony then, and were a great help to Mrs. Leal and her family. She did not speak English at the time, and her children were only beginning to learn the language, she said.

In the ’50s, the Leals were the only Mexican family in the area. Her daughters recalled how the family did not have much money during those years, but it never seemed to matter. Mrs. Leal, a skilled seamstress, made clothing for her children out of flour sacks, and found ways to create large family meals.

Through the years, she has performed many duties at St. Anthony, from helping the Maryknoll Sisters and Sisters of Mercy with summer Bible school to visiting the sick and elderly, washing and ironing altar linens,  cleaning the sacristy and cleaning candlesticks and votives. She served as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion until 2007, when she broke her arm. That accident and a recent diagnosis of liver cancer have limited her activities, but she still occasionally irons for some church members and attends daily Mass.

Mrs. Leal also makes rosaries as a craft. She buys the crucifixes and medallions, and often purchases beads at garage and thrift sales. She forms each link of the rosary chain herself. In 2007, she designed, made and donated 45 rosaries to CCD students at St. Anthony. Her daughters said that every member of their family has received a rosary as a gift.

Mrs. Leal’s cooking has made her something of a celebrity in Walterboro. Her Spanish red rice has taken the top prize at the local Rice Festival, and she periodically makes extra money by cooking tamales, enchiladas and a dessert friends and family simply call cinnamon treats for the public.

She has volunteered her time over the years to plan and cook three Mexican suppers to raise money for the parish. Carter, who also is a member of  St. Anthony, said last year’s dinner drew more than 500 people and raised $5,000.

“She’s just like a living saint here,” said Father Donald S. Abbott, church administrator. “She’s a very quiet woman, very behind the scenes with all she does. Maria is always smiling, more a listener than a talker. She’s a very holy person.”

Father Abbott said Mrs. Leal faithfully attends the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on First Fridays, and on most Sundays attends the Spanish Mass in the early mornings, the rosary that follows, and then the 10 a.m. Mass.

Mrs. Leal has never forgotten her heritage, and said she has volunteered to help interpret for Hispanics in need at area clinics, hospitals and police stations. A particular memory that stands out happened more than a decade ago. Carter said a Mexican family had twins and one of the babies died. They could not afford to bury the child or have him sent back to Mexico for burial, so Mrs. Leal donated a space in her family’s burial plot for them to use.

Prayer is a constant in Mrs. Leal’s life. Psalm 23 is her favorite Scripture, and she prays four rosaries a day, dedicating them to her children, grandchildren and others who need prayer.

Mrs. Leal still cooks, sews and gardens, and looks forward to her monthly women’s group meeting as a special outing.

“She’s just a humble person,” said Craven. “To her, it’s just an everyday thing to honor God the way she does.”

To view or purchase photos of Leal, click here.