Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dome Sweet H.O.M.E.: For Sister Mary, the "Golden Rose"

Just when the suffering church of Philadelphia needed a boost and reminder of its best, yet again, leave it to this town's own “Mother Teresa” to come in with the goods.

Keeping its 130-year tradition on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, the University of Notre Dame announced this morning that the co-founders of the River City’s pioneering Project H.O.M.E. -- Religious Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion (above) and Joan Dawson McConnon -- are 2011’s joint recipients of American Catholicism’s most prestigious and venerable award, the Laetare Medal.

Founded in 1989, Project H.O.M.E. (“Housing. Opportunities for Employment. Medical Care. Education.”) has been credited with cutting Philadelphia’s homeless population in half. Its efforts based around a program that invites the homeless to come in from the streets to access the education and empowerment tools to find work, stability and a place to call their own, the empire of service created by this year’s Laetare laureates has grown from a start-up in an abandoned building with 12 men looking for help to providing nearly 500 affordable housing units for its current clients, countless more gone on to owning homes, multiple businesses to employ and train those who've come in search of the step up, and a multi-million-dollar North Philadelphia technology center where underprivileged youth spend six days a week learning the computer skills they'll need in today's workplace.

According to its figures, some 95 percent of Project H.O.M.E. alums "stay off the streets for good," and attempts to imitate the model have popped up around the country.

Along the way, with McConnon (left) -- an accountant who left the corporate world behind after volunteering in a church hospice -- quietly overseeing the operations side of the work, the fierce, formidable religious known from City Hall and national newsrooms to shelters simply as “Sister Mary” would go on to become Philadelphia’s most credible and prominent moral authority, her passionate, unvarnished conviction winning an army of followers ranging from the longtime Republican (then Democratic) Senator Arlen Specter and the new owners of NBC to the musician Jon Bon Jovi, who's dubbed the "nun who spits and swears" his "mentor" in undertaking his own considerable efforts at service. Further underscoring the point, while sisters engaged in social ministry usually find their cheering section on one side of the political aisle, such are Scullion’s devotees across all sorts of divides that, when the Philadelphia Housing Authority was recently placed under Federal oversight amid allegations of mismanagement and settled sexual-harassment claims against its now-former executive director, the city’s leading conservative commentator took to prime-time TV brandishing a “big idea”: send in Sister Mary to whip the beleaguered agency back into shape.

Twenty-five years after opening her first shelter -- a home for mentally-ill women -- as her own housing goes, Scullion now lives in a one-bedroom apartment at Project H.O.M.E.'s recently-built residence for mothers who’ve come in from the streets with their kids. Prior to that, she kept her room at a former convent which the apostolate converted into a residence for 25 male addicts in various stages of recovery.

Dubbed “the nun who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer” by NBC Nightly News -- and, by others, the modern successor to her hometown’s own St Katharine Drexel, or even "Joan of Arc" -- Sr Mary has thrice made TIME magazine’s list of the world’s “100 Most Influential People,” tapped alongside such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, President Obama, the topmost leaders of Britain, France and Germany, China’s presidential heir apparent, the founder of Amazon and the Evangelical mega-pastor Rick Warren... not to mention B16 himself.

Even if no other prominent Catholic figure beside the pontiff could land a spot on the slate, though, Project H.O.M.E.’s external acclaim has not -- at least, as yet -- translated into an equally high ad intra profile within the Stateside church. But now, with Scullion and McConnon joining an iconic roster of past Laetare winners that includes Supreme Court justices and Dorothy Day, the novelist Walker Percy and poet Dana Gioia to the famed death-row activist Sr Helen Prejean, Martin Sheen, Thea Bowman, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and, precisely 50 years ago, the lone Catholic president of these States in the year he took office, perhaps that point -- a moment as merited as it's been delayed -- has finally arrived.

A member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Merion since 1971 -- when she entered after a year of college -- in a 2009 interview with her city's Catholic weekly, the daughter of blue-collar Irish immigrants said that her work was rooted in the Eucharist, in which "there is a place for everyone at God’s table."

Recalling Project H.O.M.E.'s motto, Scullion added that, by necessity, a Eucharistic spirituality extended that "vision" to the cause of homelessness.

"None of us are home," she said, "until all of us are home."

While the joy of a Laetare for Philadelphia is all the more poignant as its local church remains shaken in the wake of February’s second grand-jury report into the administration of the city’s 1.2 million-member archdiocese, it’s worth noting that the latest high-profile outbreak of the clergy sex-abuse scandals had no bearing on Notre Dame’s choice of this year’s recipients. Determined each Fall by an advisory committee to the university’s president, Holy Cross Fr John Jenkins, each year's Laetare winner is customarily notified of their selection in the December prior to the award’s announcement. Likewise, it should be said that, apart from the backing given by Scullion's community in allowing her to be assigned full-time to Project H.O.M.E. -- which the Mercies have likewise aided financially, especially at its start -- Sr Mary & Co. have accomplished their work on their own, neither seeking nor getting any other support from the "institutional church."

Given in a glass case against a backdrop of blue velvet, the bronze Medal is inscribed with the words "Magna est veritas et prevalebit" -- "Truth is mighty, and will prevail." As an early citation for the honor said of its recipients, "The Laetare Medal has been worn only by men and women whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church, and enriched the heritage of humanity."

Believed to be the Laetare's first joint laureates who aren’t a married couple, for the 128th time, the Stateside church’s equivalent of the papal “Golden Rose” will be formally conferred on Scullion and McConnon at Notre Dame’s 166th Commencement on May 22nd. The Secretary of Defense, Dr Robert Gates, has already been announced as the day’s main speaker.

PHOTOS: Getty(2,3)