Tommy French, pastor of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., does not believe you find a good woman behind every good man. Instead, she stands beside him, just as his wife Mary did during their lifetime of ministry.
“I don’t know how a man can lead a church without the help of a godly woman. I think her side-by-side ministry is why they’ve kept me for 50 years,” he joked. This spring, French celebrated his 50th year as pastor at Jefferson Baptist Church.
In 2001, Mary was diagnosed with cancer, beginning in her breast and spreading to her lungs. After treatment and surgery, the doctors knew they had eliminated the cancer from her body but were rightfully concerned it would return. Exactly five years after her last surgery, the cancer came back aggressively. By November 2007, the doctors knew there was nothing left they could do.
Mary did not want to spend her last days in the hospital. “I wish you could come with me,” she whispered to her husband as he cared for her at home. French knew it was not the Lord’s time for him, but he told her, “I promise to walk you to the gate.” For the next two months, French made sure that he or his two daughters were with Mary at all times.
As Mary was courageously battling cancer, French also became burdened for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his good friends, Paige and Dorothy Patterson. He began frequently witnessing attacks from secular media for Southwestern’s women’s programs, particularly the academic track for seminary wives and the homemaking concentration within the College at Southwestern.
“Mary never wanted any recognition for her hard work,” French said. “But I promised her I would donate money to help equip pastors’ wives in her memory. She still didn’t want the credit, but she believed in the purpose of the scholarship.”
Mary faced eternity with dignity and went to be with the Lord on Jan. 16, 2008. A few days later, French informed the Pattersons of his generous donation. “I told Dorothy, ‘I want this scholarship to set up exactly what you want to accomplish because I support what you’re doing. I also don’t want my Mary to be forgotten,’” French recalls.
Together, they developed the details of the Mary French Priscilla Scholarship. The award will go to the wife of a student preparing for ministry who desires to further her own education. She will also participate in a high level of mentoring, most of which will be done by the first lady of the seminary. With an endowment level of $100,000, this scholarship will cover tuition, fees, books, and opportunities to participate in selected conferences, including the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. She will also receive a brief biography of Mary’s life.
French proudly acknowledges Mary’s tireless service to the church. In addition to helping French establish the church itself, she founded the Jefferson Baptist Kindergarten and Preschool in 1967, where she served as director for 14 years. She also served in the church wherever there was a need, whether teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, coordinating weddings, or counseling a member who needed someone to listen.
“A pastor’s wife is called to complement her husband in ministry,” French says. “As a helper, you have to be theologically sound and know your husband’s craft. This scholarship will give the needed tools and training to best assist their husbands, just as Mary did for me.”
French is delighted to have the opportunity to give back to Southwestern. When he was a student, he remembers sitting in the library and being so thankful for the men and women who donated money to build it and fill it with resources.
“I can preach because of their investment to educate me,” French says with humility. “I want to support Southwestern’s leaders and staff as well as enable students to do what God has called them to do.”