Mommy Mary’s life mission
She never thought her elder days would be like this
The News Journal/delawareonline.com
When she had a choice, Mary Mellinger lived a simple, hard-working life — raising scores of orphaned, abandoned and needy kids in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, North Africa.
She mothered them, taught them, prayed with them, comforted them, disciplined them. More than 80 were in her care at one time or another — including Daoud Sefiane, now a 48-year-old father of three, living in Milford.
“She was strict, but you always felt the love,” he said. “And when she would come back from furlough in the United States, she always came back with big suitcases full of gifts for each kid.”
If she had her choice, she would still be there at the Children’s Haven she founded in 1953 with Irena Wenholz, helping more kids get a strong start in life, pouring her heart and soul into each.
But senility started to eat away at Mellinger’s choices about five years ago. As others stepped in to help, her life took a hard turn, unfolding finally in Delaware courtrooms where more of those Moroccan-born children — now adults — spent three years battling over who could best care for her and manage her affairs.
Now 93, Mellinger lives on Medicaid and Social Security in a Texas nursing home, unaware of the developments that threatened her health, drained her modest savings, produced thousands in legal fees and left one of those children with a criminal conviction for financial exploitation.
It would break her heart if she knew.
Mercifully, she does not.
Mellinger is a tiny woman, about 4 1/2 feet tall, but her life has had extraordinary reach. A native of York, Pa., she graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1944 with a clear plan. She would go to Morocco to help Wenholz, a veteran missionary, with her work among the Berber people.
She made the passage overseas on a Portuguese freighter in 1945. Their first home was in a mud house. In 1950, a mission board was formed in the U.S. to oversee their work, allowing the women to build another home and accommodate another missionary family.
In 1953, their work took an unexpected turn when a woman knocked on the door and asked them to take her baby. Mellinger and Wenholz — both single — felt they were not up to that mission, and said no. But later, they regretted their decision. They prayed and promised to respond differently if another opportunity arrived.
Soon, their second chance appeared. This time, though, the young mother at the door placed her baby boy in Mellinger’s arms and ran away.
The next child, Latifa, was brought to the home by her mother. Then came Rashida, Naima, and Houria. By 1958, 13 children lived at the Children’s Haven. Many more were on the way. The women found a new property with much more space.
Mellinger would spend the next 55 years caring for these children, whose families no longer could do so. Some were orphans, some abandoned, others were brought with the hope that they would have better lives than their birth mothers or bereaved fathers could provide.
“My mom wasn’t able to take care of me,” Sefiane, of Milford, said. “She was pregnant and went to them and asked, ‘Will you be willing to take the baby when it is born?’ The answer was yes.”
They lived on the support of churches and other sponsors in the United States. They had all they needed — but no more than that, said Myriem “Anisa” Rohr, one of the children who now lives in North Wales, Pa. They had three meals a day, but no snacks, she said.
When the money was short, they prayed, said Houria “Susie” Ezell, now of Kalamazoo, Mich. And soon, a check would arrive in the mail or someone would stop by with a gift.
“The Lord always provided,” she said, and often through “Mommy Mary,” as she still is called by those she raised.
With a growing cadre of colleagues, Mellinger and Wenholz raised and taught the children. School was on the premises. English was spoken and Arabic taught. Each child had an English name and an Arabic name, and everyone’s last name was Sefiane or Soufiane. Reasons for that common name and the spelling difference are unclear, Daoud Sefiane said.
Life was full, Ezell said, with scheduled activities, chores, worship services and games. They enjoyed fruit from their orchards — cherries, apples, peaches, apricots and pears. Also on the grounds were walnut trees and a quince tree.
Other missionaries came and went. Wenholz died in 1980 and Mellinger carried on.
As they grew up, the children left the Haven and moved out on their own. Many later moved to the United States, some earning scholarships to attend school, others finding work.
Daoud Sefiane lived the first 19 years of his life at the Children’s Haven, moving out in 1979. In 2001, he was granted an immigration visa and moved his family to Dover, where another of the Haven children — Majid Sefiane — had offered him temporary shelter. Daoud said he lived there about five months, then moved to his own place.
A few years later, Mellinger’s nephew, David Hake of Dallastown, Pa., got a call from the board of the Fellowship International Mission, which Mellinger helped to found. Mellinger — nearing her 90th birthday — needed more assistance than the Children’s Haven staff could provide. She needed to return to the United States.
“We were told that Aunt Mary had no money at all and that Majid had offered to take her into his home,” said Linda Hake, David’s wife. “He was going to build an addition onto his home for her and he had hired a nurse, 51 years old, who was a member of his church. This sounded like it would be suitable. We had met him, we had met most of the children, and we knew who he was. He was one of the boys.”
Steve Wilt, director of the mission, said Mellinger was pleased with Majid’s generous offer. The board wrote her supporters, celebrating her retirement and telling them she needed no more donations.
“She certainly believed Majid had her best interest at heart and chose to go there,” he said.
But Anisa said Mellinger had made it clear to all that she wanted to die in Morocco, with the people she loved. And, Anisa said, her small estate easily would have paid for two nurse maids there to care for her.
But Mellinger arrived in Delaware in February 2005.
A growing circle of concern
Majid Sefiane did not respond to phone calls, e-mails or written requests for interviews by The News Journal. His attorney, John O’Brien, said Majid instructed him not to comment. But court records and interviews with other Haven children and Mellinger family members show a growing circle of concern about the retired missionary’s welfare.
According to those sources, Majid earned about $300,000 a year, was part owner of a debt-collection agency and an employee of Matthews, Pierce and Lloyd.
At first, things seemed to go well. Friends from Mellinger’s home church in Pennsylvania visited Mellinger in April that year. Many of the children she had raised in Morocco called from around the country. They chatted and planned visits. Daoud Sefiane visited many times, too — at first.
Majid’s home was comfortable, and he made sure he had a vehicle that was comfortable for her.
But instead of hiring a nurse, as promised, Majid, a bachelor, hired the 17-year-old daughter of another Haven alumna, then living in Alabama. That girl moved into Majid’s Dover home to be Mellinger’s caretaker.
“Then it got very difficult,” Daoud said. “Now you’ve got to call the young lady taking care of her. And every time you call, you hear, ‘She’s sleeping. She’s sleeping.’ She was always sleeping. I said to hell with it.”
As July approached, plans unfolded for Mellinger’s 90th birthday party and the wedding of one of the Moroccan-born children. It was time for a grand reunion, many of the Haven children decided. But Majid Sefiane said no. Mellinger was not healthy enough for either event.
Indeed, her condition was deteriorating. When photos taken in April were compared with others taken in June, the changes were “night and day,” Linda Hake said. “It was horrible.”
Many of the children visited her instead, going to Majid’s Dover home. They became more alarmed by her bedridden condition. Several urged Majid to have Mellinger evaluated by a physician. He refused, they said.
After one of the Haven daughters called Adult Protective Services in early August, relations between the Haven factions deteriorated even more.
Latifa Ring of Houston, Texas, the oldest of the Haven children Mellinger had raised, started to explore the options, but learned she could not intervene unless she was Mellinger’s legal guardian. So she petitioned for guardianship, and David Hake, Mellinger’s nephew, soon joined her as co-petitioner.
Late one night in mid-August, Mellinger was admitted to Kent General Hospital, where she required surgery for a broken hip. While she was in the hospital, the state Office of the Public Guardian was appointed as her guardian.
Majid Sefiane soon filed a cross-petition, seeking guardianship of Mellinger and delivering the tug of war to Delaware’s Court of Chancery.
Lack of communication blamed
Then came a succession of attorneys, some appointed and some privately retained. Records of hearings, letters, depositions, arguments, briefs piled up. Wilmington attorney Dave Ferry, an expert in elder law who worked on the case at Ring’s request, showed nine bulging accordion-style files on a conference room table last month.
Ferry has worked such cases for 30 years. Most guardian cases are routine, he said, but he seems to draw many contentious ones.
This one, Ferry said, was exacerbated by poor communication. Majid Sefiane, angered by the challenges to the care Mellinger received in his home, closed the door for too long.
“I think he was offended by their challenge … and decided to retreat,” Ferry said. “His mistake, really, was not communicating with people. And that refusal to communicate leaves people with no alternative. I believe all of these folks really love this lady.”
Such cases often take on a life of their own, Ferry said, and people sometimes push to win arguments that, in the end, cost more than the remedy they produce.
“The moral of the story is that you need to be careful not to let emotions get away from you in pursuing these matters,” he said. “I understand the emotions. But you can’t let them get away from you.”
It was left to Chancery Master Sam Glasscock III to steer the case to conclusion. In his final report, dated August 2007, he said he saw a deepening feud as the petitions and cross-petitions were filed in 2005, so he appointed IKOR, a private firm, as Mellinger’s interim guardian to “create a buffer between the factions.”
IKOR officials later reported to Glasscock that Majid Sefiane would not allow other Haven children to visit Mellinger and that he “was intimidating and upsetting Ms. Mellinger.” In November 2005, Glasscock ordered IKOR to remove Mellinger from the home.
In February 2006, almost 20 people raised by Mellinger appeared for a hearing before Glasscock, who allowed each to tell him about her impact on their lives. That same day, guardianship of Mellinger’s property was transferred to another professional agency, Senior Partner.
Majid Sefiane’s power of attorney was removed and he was ordered to account for his time as her power of attorney. In May 2006, he filed an informal report that he had spent what Glasscock described as “breathtaking sums” totaling about $215,000 caring for Mellinger in the 10 months she lived with him. This alarmed Glasscock and an attorney ad litem was appointed to represent Mellinger. Soon, it was discovered that Majid Sefiane had transferred thousands of dollars from Mellinger’s accounts to his, after his power of attorney had ended.
In his final report, Glasscock disputed allegations that Majid Sefiane had mistreated Mellinger. In fact, Glasscock wrote, he had spared no expense and treated her “like a queen.” But, he wrote, soon after Ring filed her petition for guardianship, Majid Sefiane did a “curious thing,” withdrawing about $168,000 from Mellinger’s accounts and putting the money into his own.
“Mr. Sefiane had, and holds, a sincere but mistaken belief that Latifa Ring is herself out to financially exploit Ms. Mellinger,” Glasscock wrote. ” … His motive was not to profit from Ms. Mellinger’s assets but, in a twisted way, to protect them.”
Whatever his motives, Majid Sefiane in January 2009 pleaded guilty to charges of financial exploitation of an infirm person. At the same time, he pleaded guilty to charges he had failed to pay Delaware taxes in 2006 and 2007. Superior Court Judge Robert B. Young ordered him to pay $61,785.86 in restitution.
Ring has spent several years — flying back and forth from Texas — trying to sort out the accountings and recover attorney’s fees she says never should have been billed to her. In all, she said, she has spent about $70,000 in her long and winding struggle to care for her Mommy Mary.
“All of this took a great toll on Mary and the strain on a fragile, old woman with dementia caused her to deteriorate much faster,” Ring said.
The professional agreements are disputed, but Ring’s arguments did not prevail with Superior Court Judge Charles H. Toliver IV. She settled last month with Ferry, and hopes for reimbursement from the restitution Majid Sefiane owes.
The work in Morocco goes on
Mellinger, meanwhile, made several moves — finally moving from Arden Courts in Brandywine Hundred to the North Wales, Pa., home of Myriem “Anisa” Rohr.
A few days after that move, she was well enough to attend a June 2006 ceremony at her church home in York, Pa., where Moody Bible Institute recognized her with its Distinguished Service Award.
And in September 2006, Ring was appointed co-guardian with David Hake. Mellinger moved from Pennsylvania to Ring’s Texas home in May 2007 and moved again to an assisted-living facility in Texas in February 2008. She lives there now.
The work in Morocco continues. Kids are learning and growing, and getting the care they need from another generation of workers.
In a pamphlet about her life and ministry, Mellinger responds to the question: If you could live your life over again, would you come to Morocco?
“A thousand times ‘yes’ is my reply,” she said. “These haven’t been easy years, but they have been wonderful years, proving His faithfulness. Like David, I can say, ‘I would have despaired unless I had believed I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living.’ All praise, honor and glory to His name.
“I want to be found occupying, with my hand on the plow, when Jesus comes back,” she said. “There is so much to do and so few to do it.”
TIMELINE: THE LIFE, WORK AND TROUBLES OF MARY MELLINGER
July 27, 1915 Mellinger is born in York, Pa.
1944 She graduates from Moody Bible Institute
1945 She travels to Morocco to work with missionary Irena Wenholz
1953 The Children’s Haven is established
February 2005 She retires and returns to the United States, moving to Dover home of Majid Sefiane, whom she raised in Morocco
August 2005 Mellinger breaks hip, a public guardian is appointed and two of the children raised by Mellinger (Latifa Ring and Majid Sefiane) file competing petitions for guardianship
November 2005 Mellinger is removed from Dover home
June 2006 Mellinger moves to Pennsylvania and receives Moody’s Distinguished Service Award
September 2006 Latifa Ring (raised by Mellinger) and nephew David Hake appointed co-guardians
May 2007 Mellinger moves to Texas, where Ring lives
February 2008 Mellinger moves to Texas nursing facility
January 2009 Dover caretaker, Majid Sefiane, pleads guilty to financial exploitation
February 2009 Texas appoints Ring as Mellinger’s guardian
February 2009 Ring settles attorney’s fees