I cannot remember when I first met Mary Ann Aiello. I know, of course, that it had to have been sometime after I moved to Rockford in the last week of 1995, and I suspect that it may have been another three or four years later. But there was something about Mary Ann that made you feel instantly as if she had always been a part of your world. Slightly over five feet, a bundle of nervous energy, she spoke openly, honestly, earnestly with everyone she met. Normally, those who have the gift of gab tend to spend the moments when someone else is talking thinking of their next line. Mary Ann was never that way. She listened as intently as she spoke.
Even in the midst of debate, Mary Ann treated her most bitter political opponents with the same respect and dignity and kindness that she showed her friends. In almost 21 years as a member of the Winnebago County Board, she fought battle after battle on behalf of her constituents—and even occasionally against their expressed will. She may never have read Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, but when she was certain that a policy was right or wrong, she thought that the best way to represent those who had elected her was to fight for what is right, without regard to the consequences for her own political career.
I had the privilege of working side by side with Mary Ann as she fought against a number of bad ideas, including an inequitable Superfund settlement that would have saddled small businesses which never polluted with the same taxes paid by those who had (an event that was the initial impetus for this very column) and a state proposal to build a massive prison in the midst of farmland in southeast Winnebago County. She developed a reputation for always being against proposals—which were always presented by those who proposed them as “progress.” In most cases, her progressive opponents were Republicans—an irony that was not lost on Mary Ann, who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party after a few terms on the county board.
Readers may remember Mary Ann from another battle chronicled in these pages. In 2002, voters approved a referendum to raise funding for a new county jail in downtown Rockford across the street from St. Mary’s Oratory. A year later, under the cover of Labor Day weekend, members of the Winnebago County Board attempted to set in motion a plan to raze St. Mary’s Oratory and add the property to the jail site. The board member in charge of bringing the proposal to a vote on the Tuesday after Labor Day made the mistake of using e-mail to detail the plan, and Mary Ann ended up with a copy.
Looking back, those of us who attend St. Mary’s and fought to save it should never have doubted the final outcome. For Mary Ann, a devout Catholic, this was not just a fight against a bad proposal; it was a battle to preserve the second-oldest Catholic church in Rockford. Having supported the jail referendum, Mary Ann felt personally responsible for the threat to St. Mary’s, and she was determined to make sure that it remained standing.
Mary Ann successfully shepherded a resolution through the county board that removed the threat—at least temporarily. Faced with the possibility that the same cabal of board members would be more successful in the future, Mary Ann and local architect Gary Anderson filed for historic preservation status for St. Mary’s.
Not surprisingly, the Diocese of Rockford objected to the filing, because it would not simply protect the church from seizure but place restrictions on the diocese’s use of the church as well. Bishop Thomas Doran announced his intention to close the church if historic preservation status were granted. Over the objections of the diocese, the Rockford Historic Preservation Commission voted in early December to approve the petition, which passed to the Rockford City Council for approval.
Mary Ann and I thus ended up on opposite sides of the issue, but with the same desire to protect this landmark church. After weeks of discussion and a meeting I mediated between diocesan officials and Mary Ann and Gary, Mary Ann called me around 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2003. She wanted me to be able to go to Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s knowing that she and Gary had agreed that evening to withdraw their petition.
I lit a candle for Mary Ann at St. Mary’s in the early hours of Christmas morning and thought about how often I had seen her do the same, both there and across the Rock River at her home parish of St. James. I never once saw her enter a church without pausing to light a candle. But then, in the rest of her life, she was never one to curse the darkness, either.
In the end, some of those who claimed to support St. Mary’s thought that Mary Ann had betrayed them by dropping the petition, but they were wrong. Mary Ann’s devotion to the Faith helped her put her trust in Bishop Doran, and five years later, the church she loved still stands. Bishop Doran returned that trust when, on July 1, 2008, he presided over her funeral Mass at St. James. She had died five days earlier, after a brief battle with cancer, at age 59. May God grant her eternal rest, and eternal memory.