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They're Doing Jesus' Work

Susan Campbell

October 11, 2009

Because the poor needed to be fed, in 1980 two Sisters of St. Joseph brought a 12-cup coffee pot and a toaster to Hartford's North End. Simple, yes?

Yes, but working with the poor is never simple, and over time, the coffee pot grew to become the House of Bread, with job training, a homeless shelter, transitional housing and supportive housing, among other programs.

And why?

"We were young and stupid," says Sister Maureen Faenza, who with Sister Theresa Fonti poured that first cup.

And their excuse now?

"We're old and senile," says Sister Maureen, sitting in her cramped office on Main Street. From her desk nearby, Sister Theresa laughs.

To introduce themselves to the neighborhood so long ago, the sisters visited a local café. The owner sat them down and said, "Girls? This is what you need to work in this neighborhood," and he pulled a gun out of a drawer. Neither sister blinked.

Over the years, they've acquired a cast of characters, like the bookie who would buy back supplies people stole from the sisters and return them, free. "Sister," he'd call and say, "I have a box of your cups here." The bookie's sister died recently. Sisters Maureen and Theresa went to her funeral.

Meanwhile, who would Jesus investigate?

Earlier this year, the Vatican announced it would launch an investigation into the practices of Roman Catholic sisters, like the Sisters of St. Joseph. Though cloistered communities are not included in the review, the investigation is far-reaching and disquieting to the extreme. The inquiry looks like an attempt to pull back sisters whom the Vatican believes have strayed too far from church doctrine. These are the women — like the Sisters of St. Joseph — who do the heavy lifting in working with the poor and the disenfranchised, Jesus' work, actually. In a report from the Associated Press, Francine Cardman, who specializes in early Christian history and feminist theology at Boston College, suggested the process be considered "part of a much older tradition of misogyny in the church and especially distrust of women who are not directly and submissively under male, ecclesiastical control."

The National Catholic Reporter says the three-year apostolic visitation will cost $1.1 million.

Meanwhile, Sister Maureen has dreamed up another way to answer their flock's needs. They're building a bigger kitchen and a larger thrift shop. This in a tanking economy. Forgive me. I'm just a rank-and-file Protestant, but imagine what a little piece of that $1.1 million would do for their clients.

Today, Sister Maureen's door is shut, but only in theory. In fact, as she talks, the door blows open, a man sees a visitor inside, says, "Oh, excuse me," closes the door, knocks, and opens it again before anyone can answer. He has come with a wad of $20 bills to pay his rent. Someone's just offered him a job under the table, and he's tempted to take it. If Sister Maureen hears of anything ...

Meanwhile, another man in a wrist brace comes in with his rent in a carefully folded roll of cash. The phone rings. Again. A woman no bigger than a minute comes in clutching a baby in one hand and a document in the other. She's been evicted, she tells Sister Maureen.

"Non-payment of rent?" Sister Maureen asks kindly, and the woman says yes. Sister Maureen offers to give her My Sister's Place's phone number, though there hasn't been space there recently. The woman has another child at home. This is the second eviction come calling today, Sister Maureen says. The work goes on. It always will.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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