MINNEAPOLIS (CNS) — A Catholic servant of the poor from Minnesota whom some consider a living saint will have a private audience with Pope Francis in Washington Sept. 24.
Mary Jo Copeland, 73, who founded Sharing and Caring Hands in 1985, will meet the pontiff in person, along with her husband, Dick, and Auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Her voice cracked with emotion several times as she tried to describe what this meeting means to her and her ministry to the poor.
“This is such an overwhelming thing. I can’t quite believe it,” she said minutes before rushing off to greet the dozens of guests who line up daily outside her doors for lunch.
“I believe that this means that God wants me to continue to know that he’s pleased with my work, and he wants me to continue to help his people,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “He says to me when I pray, ‘You help others and I’ll help you, Mary. You take care of my people, and I will take care of you.’ And, he has. I think that’s what God is saying through this visit.”
Copeland didn’t know exactly what time her audience with the pope at the Vatican Embassy, or apostolic nunciature, would take place or how long it would last. But, she was certain of what she wants to say to the Pope Francis.
“I’m going to say, ‘Your Holiness, you have the heart of Jesus, and I want to come and tell you that you’re changing the world, and your love of the poor is like my love of the poor,'” said Copeland, a parishioner of St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center. “‘We can change the world. We can do it together.'”
To be sure, Copeland — who has been compared to Blessed Teresa of Kolkata — has changed her small corner of the world on an 11-acre campus just west of downtown Minneapolis and almost in the shadow of Target Field. After raising her 12 children, she decided to look for ways to serve people in need. She left a job at Catholic Charities to strike out on her own.
She started with a small storefront, using a stipend of $2,200 and hanging a small, handwritten sign that said “Sharing and Caring Hands.”
Three years later, she bought her current property and first building for $225,000, then spent an additional $250,000 on renovation.
In addition to serving homeless men and women, she began helping mothers with children. That led to the building of Mary’s Place transitional housing in 1995. This summer she completed an expansion of the facility, adding eight more housing units plus a new teen center and children’s center. Mary’s Place now has 100 housing units, which can hold about up to 840 people.
With the continued expansions, Copeland knows her work is far from done, despite being eight years past the typical retirement age of 65. A 2014 Star Tribune story called Mary’s Place “ground zero” for newly arrived immigrants and refugees from Somalia.
“I don’t think I’m done yet. That’s why God is sending me there (to Washington) because he has another 25 years, so I have to be anointed and some more grace be given to me,” said Copeland, who is known to wash her guests’ feet, imitating Jesus at the Last Supper. “The Somali community is praying for my long life, and I know God hears their prayers.”
This isn’t the first time Copeland’s work has been granted extraordinary recognition. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian honor. President George W. Bush also recognized her work. Two biographies have been published about her life and work, the most recent in 2013.
The anticipated papal audience came about through letters sent both by Copeland and Bishop Cozzens to the pope through the apostolic nuncio in the U.S. six months ago. Initially, she wanted the pope to come to the Twin Cities and visit her at Sharing and Caring Hands, but Bishop Cozzens told her that likely wasn’t possible. So, they wrote requesting the chance to meet him in Washington during his stop there.
“We didn’t know if we’d get a response or not,” Bishop Cozzens said. “About three weeks ago, we got an initial response.”
The person he spoke with indicated a visit was possible, but not yet confirmed. Eventually, they got the news that they were on the schedule to see Pope Francis.
“I’m really excited about it,” Bishop Cozzens said. “I think it’s a great gift for our archdiocese and a great honor to the work that Mary Jo Copeland has done for the poor.”
Hrbacek is senior content specialist at The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.