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The Influential Sister Mary Scullion

Image: Project H.O.M.E.
Image: Project H.O.M.E.

What do Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama and Mary Scullion, a Sister of Mercy from Philadelphia, all have in common? What, you give up? So soon?

Well, no wonder. That’s really quite an incongruous list. But actually, for anyone who knows Sister Mary Scullion or even knows of her, her name is the most important one there. So who is this woman and what list are we talking about?

Mary Scullion, R.S.M., is the cofounder and executive director of the Philadelphia-based Project H.O.M.E, the single most successful homeless outreach organization in the country, indeed, in the world. And “the list” is the focus of the annual TIME magazine issue that names the year’s 100 “most influential leaders, thinkers, artists, titans and icons who shape our thinking and most affect our world.”

When word hit the streets of Philadelphia that Sister Mary had been named to the 2009 list, Mayor Michael Nutter told reporters, “We’re so proud of her. It’s time the rest of the world gets to know our Sister Mary.”

Gaining Some Perspective

But before you meet Sister Mary, who was recognized in the category of Heroes and Icons, it’s important to start with some amazing facts. The work that led to the founding of Project H.O.M.E (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care and Education) began in 1989 when more than 2,000 homeless people lived on the streets of Philadelphia, the fourth-largest city in the country. Today there are fewer than 200 homeless in Philadelphia.

To put those numbers in perspective, currently 2,000 people live on the streets of New York and 40,000 homeless live in San Francisco. In fact, Philadelphia now has the lowest per capita number of homeless people on the street of any city in the world. Equally astounding, more than 95 percent of the men and women who have participated in the Project H.O.M.E program have not returned to life on the street.

Life Has Changed a Little

The article in TIME pictures a slim woman with short, dark hair wearing tiny earrings and a plain, light pink dress. The woman I met at 1515 Fairmount Avenue, the organization’s three-story headquarters in Philadelphia, seemed as slight in stature as the now nonexistent earrings. Hurrying in to a spartan but neatly appointed conference room, apologizing all the way for a short delay, Sister Mary confessed that, yes, her schedule had become a bit more hectic since “the list” had been published. But she was happy to sit down for an interview with St. Anthony Messenger.

Within three minutes, her quiet dynamism and clearly focused conversation came through, spoken in the distinctive flat Philly accent that fellow natives would recognize if they heard it in the middle of a desert.

The Road to H.O.M.E.

Mary Scullion, a first-generation American, daughter of Irish immigrants, lived the ordinary life of a Catholic schoolgirl in the 1960s in what was then an Irish enclave in northeast Philadelphia. Her home parish, St. Martin of Tours, was a commanding physical presence on Roosevelt Boulevard, the busy thoroughfare that linked the center of the city with the burgeoning suburbs.

She came of age in the exciting period just after Vatican II and, soon after graduation from Little Flower High School, applied for admission to the Sisters of Mercy of Merion, Pennsylvania, just about a 20-mile drive from her home.

Her formation year was quickly followed by her first assignment, teaching seventh grade at an inner-city school. Life at St. Malachy’s introduced her to some of Philadelphia’s poorest people and led her to request an assignment at Mercy Hospice, an archdiocesan program which is a shelter for homeless women. Here she stayed and worked while also studying as a full-time student at St. Joseph’s University.

As she talks about the people who strongly influenced her early years, Sister Mary credits the Sisters of Mercy, who taught her in high school, and her great friends in her formation class. But it was Father Ed Brady, S.J., at St. Joe’s who gave her the opportunity that became the seminal event of her life.

It was 1975, and the university was involved in planning for the 41st Eucharistic Congress to be held in Philadelphia the following year. Father Brady asked young Sister Mary to join a committee of four students who would help plan Hunger for Bread Day at the Congress, a day that would see the appearance of four giants of the Catholic Church: Brazilian Cardinal Dom Helder Camara, Father General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker movement).

To this day, Sister Mary can hear the voice of Father Arrupe saying, “When there is anyone hungry in the world, the Eucharist is incomplete everywhere in the world.” That message and the chance to meet and listen to Camara, Day and Mother Teresa fired the social conscience and launched the career of this young nun who would change a city in ways that neither she nor the city fathers could then possibly imagine.

The Work Begins

Flash forward to 1989. Sister Mary and Joan Dawson, a young Drexel University graduate in finance, committed Catholic and volunteer with the homeless, ask city officials to open a short-term emergency shelter for about 50 men who were not welcome in city shelters.

“Joan and I began our work together in the locker room of a city swimming pool,” Sister Mary says with a grin. “We cooked everything in a microwave oven and, since there was no sink, we used the washing machine hose to clean the dishes. The men came in at 7 p.m. and left at 7 a.m., returning to the same bed we saved for them every night.”

Sister Mary describes Joan Dawson, now Joan Dawson McConnon, as her greatest support and influence at Project H.O.M.E, a woman with incredible knowledge of finance, strong organizational skills and dedication. Joan, the project’s cofounder, is now associate executive director, chief financial officer and treasurer of the board of directors. She, Sister Mary, Steve Gold, a lawyer and invaluable supporter, two other volunteers and “three guys from the shelter,” as Joan remembers them, created the first board when they got together one night in that original locker room.

In turn, this group wrote the set of rules by which they all would live. The words “they all” are critical, because from that first meeting to the present, the work would be collaborative and communal.

“When staff, volunteers and homeless people work together,” Sister Mary says, “we’re all changed.”

Their work would also be unknown. When I ask Sister Mary how she was able to get people to believe in her at the outset, when no one knew anything about her, she answers very quietly, “It was kind of a miracle.”

As she tells it, one day someone from Philadelphia’s Connelly Foundation came by. “I don’t know how they knew about us,” she says, “but they sought us out and gave us our first gift of $100,000. Until then, we were mainly doing emergency assistance. Their amazing and totally unexpected gift permitted us to take the work to the next level, to become a real organization.

“Nine years later, Harold and Lynne Honickman came along and helped us open a state-of-the-art education center in North Philadelphia. The Honickmans are motivated by their Jewish faith. Like so many others who have helped us, they believe in the sacredness of every person and the importance of our mission,” says Sister Mary.

Project H.O.M.E. Mission Begins

Perhaps Project H.O.M.E. is summed up best by the motto that has become a mantra for the organization’s mission: “No one is home until all of us are home.” Inspired no doubt by the words of Father Arrupe all those many years ago, this phrase is not a mere slogan but is a deeply held belief and vision for every member of the Project H.O.M.E. staff.

“You can’t do this work unless you firmly believe that homelessness is simply not acceptable,” says Sister Mary. “The men and women who sleep on our streets are a prophetic sign that something is radically wrong in our society.”

The organization’s Mission and Values statements are summarized in their opening lines:

“The mission of the Project H.O.M.E. community is to empower adults, children and families to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, to alleviate the underlying causes of poverty and to enable all of us to attain our fullest potential as individuals and as members of the broader society.

“The work of Project H.O.M.E. is rooted in our strong spiritual conviction of the dignity of each person.”

How It Works

On any given day, the work begins, often at dawn, when members of the outreach staff of various private and public agencies start out and begin to approach people living on the Philadelphia streets, gently and one by one. This outreach process is coordinated by Project H.O.M.E. at its headquarters on Fairmount Avenue and is in itself an organizational model for many other cities.

When a homeless person is finally willing to respond to the outreach worker and come off the street, a Project H.O.M.E. van brings the man or woman to one of two entry-level residences, appropriately called safe-havens.

The next step in the process is residence in one of two transitional housing units, Kairos House for men and women who have been primarily diagnosed as mentally ill, and St. Elizabeth’s Recovery Residence for those who are chemically dependent and for homeless veterans.

After a year in transition, residents can move into one of seven support homes, where they can live in affordable single rooms or units for families who continue to need some level of help and supervision.

“The goal of all outreach work is simple,” Sister Mary says. “It’s to get people into homes. We always start with one question when we approach a homeless person. We ask, ‘What do you need?’ The answer is always the same, ‘A place to live.’

“But the biggest barrier is lack of affordable housing and appropriate housing for people who require temporary or permanent assistance.

“The key is community support. We say the same thing to everyone who comes to us: ‘You are the only one who can take responsibility for keeping yourself housed and healthy.’ Our job is to provide the health, education, job training and other services that can help make it happen.”

The 20-year Miracle

At this writing, Project H.O.M.E. has 375 units of housing for formerly homeless people and 39 two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments for formerly homeless families in a total of nine residences. Services in each place are tailored to group needs, ranging from those who are seriously ill to those who have low income but are able to live independently. An additional new residence, in the very heart of the center city business district, will be ready this year.

The newly built, eight-story, LEED-certified building will offer 79 single-resident units, a community room and offices. Named Connelly House for the remarkable couple and their family who provided the seed money for what eventually became Project H.O.M.E., and planned as a joint venture with Bethesda Project, another Philadelphia agency for the homeless, it brings about a unique collaboration that will model future ventures of its kind.

While countless needs still exist, the early struggles, campaigns, marches and legal fights for acceptance are over.

Project H.O.M.E has revitalized whole neighborhoods and helped build remarkable community partnerships. Mayor Nutter continually cites remarkable statistics when he proclaims that the Philadelphia community is committed to fighting homelessness. The acceptance and even enthusiasm of the Connelly House neighbors bear out that truth.

Fame and Future

So, basic facts aside, let’s go back to our original question: Who is this woman and why has she been so successful?

Sister Mary answers the last question without hesitation. “Joan and I have a deep faith, I as a religious Sister of Mercy and Joan as a committed laywoman. We believe that all persons have dignity, that all persons, despite their circumstances, have potential and gifts. And we know that, when people work together, sharing hope and vision, great things can happen through shared leadership. Everyone’s a leader here. The homeless help us and help one another. Everyone bands together in this community and that’s what makes it work.”

Sister Mary is a woman of both gentleness and steely resolve, and the same level of contrast operates throughout the organization she heads. Even though the original grassroots approach continues, Project H.O.M.E. is clearly a well-run, highly professional organization with a $12.5 million annual budget.

“Some of our early mistakes taught us that we must constantly pay attention to growth and change, and we do,” she says.

Recognition from prestigious national organizations has not come by accident. While there have been countless profiles in major media outlets and citations from the Ford Foundation, HUD, the National Law Center and others, Sister Mary places understandable emphasis on the fact that Charity Navigator has given Project H.O.M.E. a four-star rating for sound fiscal management for five consecutive years.

“We make certain that we are good stewards of every dollar we receive,” she says.

When I ask what major organizations have provided the greatest support, the answer comes with more than a hint of obvious pride. “Women religious stepped up,” she says. “Our biggest organizational sponsors have been three groups of religious women.

“My own community has given us three million dollars, in addition to the services of many of our most talented Sisters of Mercy who work here every day. The Dominicans contributed two million toward the purchase of an apartment complex for low- to moderate-income adults and formerly homeless people who can now live independently. The Franciscans of Philadelphia gave us a million dollars to purchase St. Elizabeth’s, a parish they served until it closed. They, like the Dominicans, want us to continue their legacy.”

As for the second question—Who is this woman?—various media outlets offer an interesting view of Sister Mary’s open personality. PHILADELPHIA magazine described her as “the earthy yet spiritual cofounder of Philly’s celebrated Project H.O.M.E.” TIME called her “Philadelphia’s Mother Teresa.” The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia’s archdiocesan newspaper, referred to her as “a woman of seemingly boundless energy, most of it spent in mission.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to her somewhat oddly as “Philadelphia’s Joan of Arc”! MSNBC correspondent Ron Allen wrote that Sister Mary is a humble, understated woman who is “persistent, passionate and firmly in control of what she’s doing.”

Some phrases are repeated again and again: She’s a person of deep compassion and hardheaded practicality; Sister Mary never takes “no” for an answer; there’s nothing phony about her. But perhaps the truest characterization comes from Sister Ellen Cavanaugh, Sister Mary’s vocation director, who said, “God knew that, within Mary, mercy lived.”

Looking Forward

When she looks to the future, Project H.O.M.E’s executive director envisions a strong wellness program that will accompany the marvelous help that doctors and nurses from nearby Jefferson Hospital now give to the homeless sick. And her special hope is for the creation of additional education and technology centers because “the solution to homelessness is a quality education for every child.”

Sister Mary Scullion believes firmly in the transformational power of building relationships and community. For that reason she walks and talks easily with people from every walk of life—strong supporters like rock star Jon Bon Jovi, athlete and coach Bill Cunningham, street people, former presidents, visiting royalty, volunteers, cardinals, television personalities, professional artists and musicians, politicians, local police, artists—everyone. But above and beyond all, Sister Mary walks and talks with God.

Margaret Gordon Kender is a freelance writer from Orefield, Pennsylvania. Her work has previously appeared in this magazine, as well as others. She is a member of the board of trustees for DeSales