As more than 1 million Taiwanese participate in a nine-day procession around central Taiwan to honor Matsu (媽祖), the goddess of the sea, the deity continues to comfort believers thousands of kilometers away in the US.
Though the Matsu temple in Silver Spring, Maryland, is surrounded by Latin-American communities and Catholic churches and doesn’t have nearly the following that Taiwan’s temples enjoy, people still show up to throw divination blocks to seek help from the goddess.
The temple has survived because of the efforts of Helene McCarthy, who was married to the late Richard McCarthy, a former director of the US Department of Information Services in Taiwan, before the US severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979.
Her dedication to the temple — and to Matsu — resulted from support provided by the goddess in 1997, when her husband needed heart-bypass surgery, but he was too weak to have the operation and seemed on the verge of death.
She visited the temple, which at the time was located in Rosslyn, northern Virginia, and appealed to Matsu for help.
Helene McCarthy said the goddess promised that her husband would survive the ordeal and that gave her the confidence to try and strengthen her husband by feeding him liquid food through a tube.
The combination of Matsu’s support and Helene McCarthy’s nursing led to a significant improvement in Richard McCarthy’s health, enabling him to have the surgery.
Her husband lived for another 10 years because of the operation, before dying in 2008 at the age of 87, and the experience left Helene McCarthy devoted to Matsu out of gratitude for the deity’s help.
Helene McCarthy took over as head of the struggling temple and moved it to Silver Spring, where it is now an active part of the community.
Helene McCarthy said that every year she serves meals to worship Matsu during the Lunar New Year and on Matsu’s birthday, which is on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar calendar, or April 13 this year.
Many people in the area visit the temple to seek good fortune or advice on their careers or personal decisions, much like devotees in Taiwan, she said.
According to legend, Matsu was a girl who was born around 960 AD and was deified posthumously during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in honor of the assistance she offered to seafarers.
One of Taiwan’s most popular deities, she is the subject of arguably the country’s biggest annual religious rite — a nine-day procession around central Taiwan from Jenn Lann Temple in Greater Taichung’s Dajia (大甲), which attracts more than 1 million visitors.
This year’s event opened on Friday and was attended by 100,000 followers who crowded in and around Jenn Lann Temple.