Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary’s Meals, with youngsters in Haiti. Photo by Chris Leslie

In his 45-second acceptance speech, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow told millions who watched him receive the CNN “Top Ten Hero” award last November that he thanked “God and Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” 

Could it have been the dying mother in the mud hut in southern Africa surrounded by her starving children, the boy who wanted “enough food to eat and be able to go to school one day,” the suffering Bosnian war refugees, or the prodding of the Blessed Mother that ultimately ignited the fire in his heart to found Mary’s Meals, for which he received the award? More than likely, it was all of the above. 

Aiding refugees, needy

At the height of the Bosnian war, in November 1992, MacFarlane-Barrow and his brother, Fergus, both Scottish fish farmers, watched a news broadcast about the war and immediately appealed to their local community for donations. They took time off work and delivered aid to the needy in Bosnia. Witnessing the intense suffering tugged profoundly on their hearts. But they were happy they could help in some way. 

When they returned home, they discovered that the sheds surrounding the family’s Catholic retreat center, the Craig Lodge Family House of Prayer, were filled with donated aid. They prayed for guidance on what to do with the goods. 

Before long, MacFarlane-Barrow sold his house, gave up his job and, with the use of a donated truck, drove back and forth across Europe delivering the aid to refugees all over Bosnia and Croatia. In his travels, MacFarlane-Barrow met his future wife, Julie, who had also given up her job as a nurse to help the suffering in Bosnia. 

Broadening scope

Support for the work continued to grow as the hunger pangs of starving children in more countries were eased because of donations and the couple who had forfeited former pursuits to follow what they sensed was a call from above. 

Their outreach broadened and additional projects launched, including homes for HIV-positive abandoned children in Romania, health care clinics in Africa and more. 

While carrying out an emergency feeding program during a famine in Malawi in 2002, MacFarlane-Barrow experienced a remarkable encounter with a dying woman named Emma lying on the dirt floor of her hut, situated on the edge of parched fields. Her starving children snuggled in close to their mother’s frail body. 

Emma said, “There is nothing left for me but to pray for my children.” Her husband had died the previous year from AIDS, the same disease ravaging her body. Without extended family, she knew her children would be orphans before long. 

MacFarlane-Barrow asked her oldest boy, Edward, what he wanted most in life. His simple hopes were to have enough food to eat and to be able to go to school. Edward’s stirring words stayed with him. 

Later that year, the Mary’s Meals campaign was born, designed to provide one healthy daily meal for children in a place of education. The first meals were served to 200 children in that Malawian village. 

Dedicated to Mary

Today, more than 530,000 children receive Mary’s Meals daily, including leper children in India, former child soldiers in Liberia, street children in Ukraine and the Philippines, semi nomads in Kenya, Haitian slum dwellers, special needs children in Bosnia and more. 

MacFarlane-Barrow credits the charity’s success to naming the work after the Blessed Mother and continually asking her for help and intercession. “I am sure this is why Mary’s Meals has grown beyond anything we would have thought humanly possible and why it retains all the hallmarks of a loving, practical mother who desires that her children are fed,” he told OSV. 

Meanwhile, Magnus and Julie MacFarlane-Barrow are happily married and raising their seven children.  

“Back home, I continue to work in the little shed I borrowed from my father years ago to store the donations,” he told OSV. “It leaks a little and can be drafty in the winter, but to me, it is important, that as this work grows we remember how this work began and who we work for.” 

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is the author of several books, including “Mother Teresa and Me” (OSV, $14.95). Visit www.marysmeals.org.uk/.