Glenda McCall spent three decades as a head nurse at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Portland. She helped irascible old soldiers rehabilitate from falls and battle wounds. Since retiring, McCall has traveled to the homes of about 60 seniors to provide foot care. She donates the fees to Catholic women’s groups like the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women and Young Ladies Institute.

McCall, cheery and busy at 84, is active as a lector and chorister at her parish, Our Lady of Sorrows in Southeast Portland. She has led rosary-based days of reflection. Six days a week, she swims and goes to morning Mass. 

“Glenda is an inspiration to many of us,” said Sue Anker, an ACCW leader. The organization named McCall its 2018 Woman of Achievement.

Most people don’t know that McCall’s glowing life of faith and service is the best possible response to recurrent woe.

Her first husband died young and her second abused her. She lost a son to heart trouble and a grandson to heroin. Her Catholic faith, she says, has helped her move beyond despair.

“Without my faith I would have gone crazy,” McCall says. “I always had hope. The church gives me hope.”

The daughter of a Missouri farmer, she milked cows and gathered eggs while in primary school. She learned about patience by noting that if you poke hens with a stick to get them off the nest, you break eggs.

Raised during the Great Depression, she didn’t know how poor her family was. She just recalls rural pleasures like devouring a watermelon off the vine. 

The family moved to Kansas, where young Glenda met her devoutly Catholic grandmother, a German-American who walked to Mass daily. Glenda tagged along and learn to pray the rosary.

“I thought my grandmother was really a holy person,” says McCall, confessing that stellar home cooking added to the heroic stature.

In the early 1950s, the family moved to The Dalles where the father landed a job building a dam on the Columbia River. Glenda attended The Dalles High School and worshipped at the old St. Peter Church with its lofty steeple that has survived high winds for more than a century. She took voice lessons from the Holy Names Sisters.

She worked at the local movie theater for 70 cents an hour and then took a secretary’s job at an insurance office. That’s how she saved $300 and headed off to nursing school at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Northwest Portland. She babysat on weekends to pay off the rest of the tuition and graduated in 1956.

She wed the son of a patient she tended while on nursing duty. Glen, a singer, was in the Air Force, so the couple moved around the nation and the world while having five children. Settling in Southeast Portland, they attended Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Ignatius parishes. The kids went to La Salle Prep. It was a sweet life and Glen was a sweet man.

Then he died in 1978 at age 46 of a heart ailment. Support came from Glen’s parents, the parishes and the Catholic schools. McCall is still grateful. 

“I kept going,” she says. “I was so busy I didn’t have time to grieve a lot.” A few times, while driving home from work, she would pull over and weep.

In the middle of it all, she cared for her aging father and volunteered at the schools. She recalls making hundreds of meatballs for the St. Ignatius Italian dinner.

Later, she was wed for 13 years to a man who seemed wonderful at first: Catholic, friendly, passionate. But he turned out to be an abuser. She sought advice from priests who urged her to leave him and so she did. Like many battered women, she has suffered shame.

“I have to forgive,” she says. “I can’t forget.”

McCall supports efforts to curb domestic violence and urges the Catholic Church to address it more. She backs the local domestic violence shelter and gives talks, including at parishes.

“You may be sitting right next to someone at church who is being abused and she won’t say anything,” McCall says.

The pain kept coming. Three years ago, her son John died at age 52 of the same heart problem that took Glen.

“You can’t describe it,” she says. “That really throws you. You don’t get over it but you move on.”

McCall’s family went through another tragedy when her grandson Michael died of a heroin overdose in his early 30s. He had been in recovery when his old drug dealer came calling. She recalls Michael as a smiling fair-haired boy who would come to her house on the weekends.

“It’s so hurtful,” she says. “You don’t know what to do. It is so hard to see them destroy their lives.”

Asked how trials have affected her faith, McCall says she relies more and more on the Virgin Mary. “I find it easier to talk to her,” she explains. When irritated by a poor driver, McCall recites a Hail Mary, even if it’s through clenched teeth.

Her faith, she says, once rested mostly on the catechism. Now it also stands on human experience and it has only become more stable.