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Nun's life honed her for Covenant House

NCR Staff
New York

Seconds later, the girl came running toward the van from another direction. In an effort to fool her pimp she had run completely around the block.

She was only about 30 yards from our van and safety. Then it happened. A huge car came screeching around the corner, its headlights off in the darkness, and aimed itself directly at our van. Sheila slammed on the gas.

The car headed right for the girl. She was very, very young. Fifteen at the most, maybe even 12 or 13.

She raced across the street with the car behind her. It pulled alongside. A man jumped out, grabbed the child by the throat and started beating her. He then picked her up and threw her into the car.

Our van raced after the car. Sheila took the license number and telephoned it in to the police. They said there was nothing they could do.

I can't get this girl out of my mind.

Thirty-nine years before Sr. Mary Rose McGeady wrote that description in a letter she was a young, warmhearted nun with her comforting arms around disturbed young children at Astor House in Rhinebeck, N.Y. It was 1958. The kids then were all from New York City.

Her friend and fellow Daughter of Charity, Sr. Mary Patricia Finneran, said, "We took care of them as though they were our own."

The troubled children were a microcosm of what was to come. So in one sense, McGeady (pronounced McGaydy) has heard it all before. But nothing like she sees it and hears it as president of Covenant House, the New York-based organization that welcomes cast-out and runaway children.

The 1990s are different -- in the intensity of the times, in the depth of the pain, in the numbers of kids.

"These kids are the off-scouring of the earth," she said. The 1990s are different in the viciousness that encircles the ever younger kids and robs most of them of a chance of ever having lives. On average, every six minutes, somewhere in the United States, a child who has been beaten, raped, used as a drug runner, thrown out of the house or who has run away calls the Covenant House "Nineline" -- 1-800-999-9999. The number receives 88,000 calls a year.

Every night as the street lights go on and the world turns dark, Covenant House vans in eight U.S. cities (soon to be 10) and five countries start their patrols. In New York City alone, 6,000 youngsters a year pass through the crisis center.

"No thanks, Sister," the tiny voice called from the shadows. "I'll be OK. Don't worry." The tiny kid standing in the darkness felt his voice crack, and I knew he was lying. I caught the lump in my throat and I tried to stay cool.

For several nights our van team had pursued the 10-year-old boy, pulling alongside him to offer help.

I could see the longing in his eyes every time he said no. I prayed to God. I knew time was running out for him.

Finally, tonight, the big breakthrough came. Tonight, when he stepped out of the shadows, his face was black and blue and swollen and dripping tears.

"I'm scared. I got no place to go."

I reached out and hugged him as hard as I could. I already imagine what he'll say to me the first time we talk.

Mary Rose McGeady was born in 1928 in Hazleton, Pa. Her father was an air conditioning engineer, her mother a homemaker and "mathematical whiz" with a great concern for the poor. Each parent had a great sense of humor. The Depression hit. Her father didn't work for 15 months. In 1935, shortly after daughter Catherine was born, the McGeadys moved to Washington, D.C.

As kid sisters go, Catherine was very lucky. "From what I hear from my pals," said Catherine Pendleton, "some younger sisters report their older sister was a witch. Not mine. I have to report she was actually very nice to me."

When Mary Rose started high school, Mrs. McGeady worked as an accountant to help pay for her daughters' Catholic education. To make sure Catherine was fine, she would ask Mary Rose, "Please take Catherine with you." Catherine said her sister "swam, bowled, danced and what have you -- but she never griped about taking me."

After Holy Comforter School in Washington, McGeady attended Immaculate Conception Academy, run by the Daughters of Charity. She entered the novitiate after high school, was educated as a psychologist, at Fordham for her master's and the University of Massachusetts for a doctorate. She's ABD -- all but dissertation.

Her first work assignment was in Boston at a Catholic home for destitute children. "I was working with really hurt kids. The kids then were coming more from alcoholic homes, from mothers in mental hospitals. Family breakdown, family disintegration, family conflict was always the basis of the problem and it still is today. When the family fails, that's when the kids suffer," she told NCR.

"I think a lot of couples give up too easily -- sometimes I meet parents who think they did a good job preparing their kids for divorce," she said. "But kids never get over the loss of the other parent.

"We see a lot of kids who've never known family, or if they've seen it, it's been in the midst of conflict and pain and infidelity -- kids who don't have a father but who've had five fathers or [have] four brothers and sisters by four different men."

McGeady was in her New York office fielding phone calls -- happily congratulating an NBC "Dateline" producer for a recent three-part documentary on pregnant teenage girls -- and looking alternately with bemusement and amusement at a file folder bulging with mail.

The top letter contained a check for $50,000 (from the St. Paul-Minneapolis diocese Catholic Community Foundation). The checks are not usually that big," she confided conspiratorially, raising her eyebrows.

After Boston she was at the Astor Home in Rhinebeck. "It was the golden age of child care in this country," she said. "It was great. Everybody wanted to know how to take care of these children. Everybody was interested in doing it better. I have to say I spent 10 years there [she became director] and it was the basis for the rest of my life.

"Now nobody wants these kids," she said. "Their families don't want them. The system doesn't want them. The government doesn't want them. Except for the fact that we've 700,000 Americans who support us, we wouldn't be able to do any of this."

"Sister, how much do you get paid to take care of me," he asked. He was 16 years old, a little desperate and very tired. "I mean how much does the state give you. Do they give you a lot?"

"Now why did you ask that question?"

"Well...that's what my mother said when she threw me out. She said she got money from the state for the foster children she took in and if I was gone she could take in one more foster child."

McGeady is paid $140,000 a year to run the organization, which has $83 million a year in revenues, all in donations. The check is made out to the Daughters of Charity, who refuse to accept any increases. McGeady "always had three or four full-time jobs," said Tom DiStefano, Brooklyn diocese Catholic Charities executive director who worked with McGeady in the 1970s and '80s, "and one of them has always been going out to work to help support the sisters. The community breadwinner."

The community DiStefano refers to is St. John the Baptist in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where McGeady lives with 11 other sisters. More than 20 years ago, when McGeady arrived at Catholic Charities in Brooklyn, she and the sisters began building up a ministry that today includes high school equivalency and job skills training, advocacy and outreach. The mental health clinics McGeady worked on for Catholic Charities she encouraged to become "an integral part of the communities -- she took very traditional clinics, brought them into the neighborhoods," DiStefano said.

"She set the stage for major commitment to the chronically mentally ill, took a small effort to a $20 million a year operation." he said. "She has a tremendous sense of community. She's a real presence, a goodness that inspired charities and government to work together."

She also found some government people knocking on her door, wanting to work for her as well as with her.

DiStefano is in awe of McGeady's ability "to dialogue with the mentally ill. To experience the beautiful picture of them coming together, with her sense of humor bringing humor into what other people might see only as a bleak situation was, frankly, inspirational."

She also brought to discussions, he said, the sense that one's personal interests or natural inclinations could be put aside for the greater ministry. "To me that was always impressive," he said, "especially in the '70s when we were all trying to find our way through what Vatican II [1962-65] was telling us."

For six years McGeady was out of Brooklyn and serving at the Albany provincial headquarters. When she returned it was as Catholic Charities executive director.

"Gentle as she could be with a child or the vulnerable," said DiStefano, "she could be tough in terms of putting an issue forth and trying to resolve a problem. At the same time, she had a way of doing it -- didn't personalize it even with people she disagreed with -- and people came away whole and intact and with a respect for her."

"My stepfather beats me...does sexual stuff to me ever since I was 12." David is now 14. Earlier tonight because he was so hungry his stomach hurt and so drenched he needed dry clothes, David dropped by the shelter for a minute.

As soon as I heard he was in the building I raced down the stairs.

"I've been looking for you David. We all have."

"I know," the little mouse said. "Kids like me don't have no choice. We gotta keep moving. Everyone's after me. My mother and stepfather says it doesn't look good to be 'running away.' They got the police to search for me. I'd rather rot out here than go back."

"Stay with us," I said. "We'll help you."

"I can't, I know the rules. If I stay with you, you'll have to tell my parents you found me," he said. "I'd rather die."

The idea of talking to a innocent, sweet, sobbing 14-year-old about [dying of] AIDS in the middle of the night made my heart ache.

"I can't worry about AIDS," he mumbled. "I'm probably going to die anyway. What difference does it make how it happens."

Covenant House intruded on McGeady's life in Brooklyn in 1990. Its director, Fr. Bruce Ritter, that year had been accused of sexual misconduct. The organization had gone into a tailspin. With the Ritter scandal, funding for Covenant House dropped by one-third from its $96 million peak in late 1989. Despite an overall drop nationwide in social service giving since the late 1980s, Covenant House in 1996 took in $83 million and had a $10 million surplus that enabled it to open houses in Washington and Detroit.

The search committee asked McGeady to consider the job. She said no. They asked her again. She said no and went away and prayed.

McGeady told NCR that one of the young men she worked with in Catholic Charities, who subsequently died of a heart attack, told her, " 'You know, Mary Rose, it's like your whole life has been a preparation for Covenant House. All these kids, your training, your experience.' I thought, 'Maybe this is a sign.' "

Seven times she had been to meet with the Covenant House board. On her eighth visit -- after desperately recommending and writing references for other people -- she said yes. "I was honest with the board, I said I don't know if I can do this or not. I've never had to be a fund-raiser but I'll give it my best shot if you will support me. I've never regretted the decision," she said.

Current chairman Denis P. Coleman told NCR, "She was happy where she was in Brooklyn, she didn't want the job. That's always the type of people you want to come aboard."

Said McGeady, "It was so sad. I walked into an agency that was in pain. The leadership staff had been very brave and had stuck with it because they believed in the mission. But they suffered because their names and reputations were somewhat tarnished, just like the agency's."

But the Covenant House staff and McGeady began again. She put up a tapestry from a French friend in the huge entrance hall. It shows the Prodigal Son.

When the police got to Cindy's side she was spread out on the pavement, bleeding from the lip, with contusions over her body. Cindy kept saying, "I want to get that guy." She pressed charges. The police arrested Slim and brought Cindy to Covenant House so she'd have a safe place to stay before she went to court.

The trial was everything you'd expect and dread in a 1995 court case. Slim was sitting at the table neatly bookended by two lawyers, dressed in $1,000 suits. I made a halfhearted apology to God for hating him so much.

"The girl is simply angry she didn't get a role in one of our client's videos, your honor," the lawyers said with conviction.

When it was Cindy's turn, she detailed her story with calmness and resoluteness even under the awesome onslaught of cross-examination. The trial wore on. Slim's smirk began to fade, replaced by panic.

The verdict was loud and clear. Slim was found guilty of assault, sex with a minor and trafficking in prostitution.

"Thank you Sister for helping me do this," she said as we hugged at the airport.

Covenant House chairman Coleman said of Sr. Mary Rose McGeady, "She is a remarkably tough lady. She is one tough lady."

"The toughest thing?" echoed McGeady. "The toughest thing is trying to stick to my diet."

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997