By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – You wouldn’t expect to see a Philadelphia nun who works with the homeless on a list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Mercy Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder and executive director of Project H.O.M.E., has been named a finalist in Time magazine’s 2009 annual most influential list, which calls her “Philadelphia’s Mother Teresa.”
As of press time, she is ranked 33th among 204 nominees in continuing online voting, right behind Brad Pitt.
On the plus side, according to the citation, she has helped slash the homeless rate in half in the City of Brotherly Love, and 95 percent of those who cycle through Project H.O.M.E. are never again homeless, “a success rate which has made the program a model for dozens of other U.S. cities.”
The only negative, according to the citation: “She’s not too well known outside of Philly.”
That’s beginning to change.
“It’s not about me, we are a community of a lot of people,” said Sister Mary. She co-founded Project H.O.M.E. in 1989, along with Joan Dawson McConnon, to whom Sister Mary attributes as much, if not more, responsibility for the organization’s success.
Now 55, Mary Scullion, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was a high school senior when she applied to the Sisters of Mercy in 1971.
Sister Ellen Cavanaugh, who was the vocations director, remembers the interview well.
Some members of the screening committee looked at Mary in her high school uniform and thought her far too young and inexperienced to enter religious life. Others including Sister Ellen and the congregation’s superior, Mother Mary Joan Thompson, disagreed.
“God knew that within Mary, mercy lived,” Sister Ellen said.
In any case, Mary Scullion waited a year before entering the congregation – in the meantime studying math at Temple University. Her first assignment after formation was teaching seventh grade in an inner-city school, St. Malachy in North Philadelphia.
Living and working among the poorest people in her city, Sister Mary felt drawn to a ministry more directly involved in alleviating their needs. After one year at St. Malachy, she joined the staff of Mercy Hospice, a shelter conducted by her congregation for homeless women.
A defining moment for her was the 41st International Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976, which brought such advocates for the poor as Mother Teresa, Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe, Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara and Dorothy Day to the city.
“The Eucharist is central to my spiritual life,” Sister Mary said, “and there is a place for everyone at God’s table.”
The same principle holds for homelessness. “Our vision is that none of us are home until all of us are home,” she said.
In 1985 she was a co-founder of Women of Hope, a safe haven that provides permanent housing for mentally ill women.
Since 1989, Project H.O.M.E. has been her main focus. And under the leadership of Sister Mary and McConnon, it has grown from transitional housing for 12 men to a multi-faceted agency designed to break the cycle of homelessness for the men and women it serves.
Project H.O.M.E. now has 447 units of housing and conducts three businesses that provide employment to the formerly homeless, including the Back Home Café.
Among the newer ventures is Rowan Homes, which houses 31 women with children, where Sister Mary herself has taken up residence.
A former hotel in the upscale Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia was acquired and reopened in 2005 as Kate’s Place, and converted into apartments for 144 low and moderate-income people.
“We are building a community of partners who are committed to ending homelessness, and the more people and partners involved the greater our chances in ending homelessness,” Sister Mary said.
A woman of seeming boundless energy, she usually finds time for a run through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park a couple of times each week and hopes to participate in the 10-mile Broad Street Run in the city May 3. But most of her energy is spent in mission.
The question for Sister Mary is what is God’s vision for the world and what can we do to make it happen through His grace, prayer, Eucharist and community?
Editor’s note: To vote for Sister Mary Scullion in Time magazine’s online poll, go to: www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1883644_1883653_1887958,00.html
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.