Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When I was hungry, did you feed me?

If headlines from the Vatican have got you down these days, here's one that just might strengthen the Faith.

A Philly girl, a Hawk, a buddy of Bon Jovi -- a woman living the Gospel.

Do yourself a favor and click below the read the entie article. And should you be moved by what Sr. Mary and Joan have been doing for the least of our brothers and sisters... please help them at Project H.O.M.E..

Mary of mercy Philadelphia Inquirer

Sister of the streets
There was a time when Sister Mary Scullion had to shout so Philadelphia's homeless could be heard.

In 1978, at age 25, she began working at a Center City women's shelter run by her order, the Sisters of Mercy, every night taking food, blankets, and an offer of lodging to those living on the streets.

She was a smile, a kind face, and, before long, a loud voice - a persistent gadfly in a plaid skirt, loafers, a Peppermint Patty haircut, and a mantle of moral outrage, racking up arrests through the 1990s for leading homeless demonstrators into City Council chambers, setting up protest encampments at 30th Street Station, and haranguing Mayor Ed Rendell outside his office for a week.

"Sister Mary Scullion is Philadelphia's Joan of Arc," he later wisecracked, "because so many people want to burn her at the stake."

That was many decibels ago.

Today, Washington policymakers, big-city mayors, and governors (yes, Rendell) seek her counsel. Philanthropists write seven-figure checks, and celebrities fete her. Little wonder that when Time magazine put out its 2009 list of the 100 most influential people on Earth, the 56-year-old sister was in the company of Obama and Oprah.

"There are people in the world who you draw energy from, like a lightbulb in a room," said Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "She's one of them."

Sister Mary is hardly the only selfless steward of the streets, but hers is the work Donovan looks to for affirmation. In June, he expects to roll out the first national plan to end homelessness, and increase HUD funding 10 percent, or $190 million, to just over $2 billion for 2011.

"This is a good investment. It saves money and helps human beings," Donovan said. He has seen the proof in Philadelphia, in the deeds of Sister Mary, more "than anywhere else in the country."

Donovan has known her about a year, an introduction made by Bon Jovi. The do-good rocker took her on a train to Washington, where the HUD secretary was so struck by the irrepressible sister that he came to North Philadelphia in November to see some of Project HOME's biggest successes.

Trailing an entourage including Mayor Nutter, Sen. Arlen Specter, and Rep. Chaka Fattah, Donovan toured four buildings that house and educate people rescued from shelters and streets - a $20 million investment, and only a fraction of Project HOME's efforts.

When Sister Mary and Joan McConnon started the nonprofit 21 years ago, they had nothing but their own rock-solid resolve and a volcanic mountain of NIMBY animosity. Now they have an annual budget of about $13 million (more than half from private supporters), a staff of 200, and 459 filled housing units.

They also have certitude, the muscle in Sister Mary's words: "We know what works."

So here's what Washington ought to be doing, she in essence told Donovan. There is enormous expense, and no solution, in "managing" homelessness for the short term, in providing shelters, emergency services, and other temporary aid. HUD must look beyond the fiscal year, underwrite affordable-housing and job-training projects, and speed up a government funding process so fragmented and ponderous that "it's like waiting for Godot," she said.

The politicos in tow urged Donovan to listen up. "Mr. Secretary, you're never going to get rid of her," Fattah said, not totally in jest. "Use her as an example for other cities."

But Sister Mary, a distance runner, had beaten him there.

"There are so many cities across the country where her presence has been felt, directly or indirectly," said Rob Hess, who heads homeless services in New York City and held a similar post in Philadelphia four years ago.

In the week before Donovan's visit, Sister Mary was in Houston and Columbus, Ohio, talking to city officials about "supportive housing" that provides not only a roof but day-to-day guidance for fragile lives. In a few days, she'd receive British visitors curious about her nonprofit's workings.

In between, she had a sit-down with staff about teen programs at Project HOME's $9 million education center. There was a strategy session on raising $4 million for operations and capital projects, and a meeting with her 30 trustees, among whom are the formerly homeless and the fabulously wealthy, with such last names as Honickman (soft-drink bottling) and Middleton (cigars, Phillies).

"Mary can chat with queens, she can chat with a janitor, and they both get the same person," said trustee Lynne Honickman, whose family has given several million dollars.

That's the Sister Mary whom Stephen Gold met in 1983. An advocacy lawyer, he had sued Gov. Richard Thornburgh for tightening public-assistance rules in the state. Who better to testify about homelessness than Sister Mary, who "knew everyone on the streets"?

Gold asked her to wear her habit on the stand, for obvious effect. "She told me, 'I don't have any idea where it is,' " he recalled. "She couldn't find it."

But it takes more than broken-in jeans and T-shirts to connect on the streets. Her ability to move through the same plane as the forsaken is "her amazing strength, which cannot be replicated," Gold said. "My only criticism of her is that she doesn't go out on the street every night."

Only a month ago, the civic weight on her shoulders increased. Nutter named her to the Board of Ethics, a time-consuming job in which she, three lawyers, and a pastor are to keep city politicians honest.

Sister Mary is not a curious choice, according to Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and expert on homelessness. "I don't think anyone in this town," he said, "has the moral authority that she has."

Which is not to imply she's perfect, "not by a long shot," Gold said. "Mary is not sweet, because she's driven. If she believes in something, she will do absolutely everything to fight to get it."

On occasion, he mentioned, she curses.

God knows, when need be.

Classroom without walls
Roman Catholic nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Sisters of Mercy have a fourth: to care for the poor, sick, and uneducated.

That mission goes back to Catherine McAuley of Dublin, who founded the order in 1831 after using her inheritance to shelter homeless women and girls.

McAuley was a bridge to redemptive acts, leading those who had the wherewithal to help into the world of those who needed help. Hers is the model Sister Mary emulates.

She lives among once-homeless families, in a one-bedroom apartment in a Project HOME building in North Philadelphia. Her furnishings are Ikea. One of her neighbors was a crack addict.

"I've been doing this work for more than 30 years, and I've been radically changed," she said. People who have nothing "have taught me so much about life and grace, about faith and compassion."

Truth is, she had a head start.

Mary Kathryn Scullion grew up near Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia, the elder of two daughters of Irish immigrants.

Her mother, Sheila, juggled two jobs. She was a waitress at the Irishman's Cafe and a nurse's aide at Friends Hospital, a psychiatric center.

"People would often say that when my mother was on duty, people didn't need to take their meds," Sister Mary recalled. "She had such a good way with people."

Her father, Joseph, was a Council clerk with "a great capacity for believing in us as kids and telling us we could do anything."

Mary was a popular, happy child, and no worry to her parents. She went to St. Martin of Tours parish school and Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls. She was not athletic, preferring math. She held a seat on the student council, tutored parochial students in North Philadelphia, and volunteered at John F. Kennedy Hospital.

She counted the nuns at school as friends and, in her senior year, told her parents that she wished to enter the convent. Wait, they urged. But at 19, after a year as a math major at Temple University, she joined the Sisters of Mercy.

As a novice, she finished her degree at St. Joseph's College, then taught seventh-grade math for two years. But the classroom couldn't hold her.

In 1978, she went to work for Mercy Hospice, a women's shelter that the Sisters opened above the Ugly Pub at 12th and Sansom Streets.

She spent every night among the lost women of Center City. Most were older and mentally ill, fending for themselves as state hospitals were downsized and ultimately closed. Sister Mary knew each by name.

Being with them "was the most profound experience I ever had of God," she said. "There's no pretense. It's true. It's real. Maybe in times of great suffering, it's easier to connect with people. . . . Maybe I'm more aware of God's grace in that situation."

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