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Cover story

Sister brings meals, kind words to homeless friends in the Bronx

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bronx, N.Y.

The blue van slowed down as it turned into one of the more desolate corners of the Bronx, a remote loading dock at the Bronx Terminal Market where a few empty trailer trucks were parked. A woman got out of the van and walked toward a huge abandoned warehouse with large, gouged-out holes where there were once doors and windows. Inside, there was nothing now but a cavernous darkness. In the middle of a cold, wintry day, in the basement of the Bronx, its floor was a grimy expanse of rubble, dirt, garbage and worse.

"Annie, are you in there? Are you all right?" the woman called out in the darkness a couple of times before another woman's voice answered faintly from the opposite end of the abandoned cave.

"Over here, Sister, I'm over here."

When Sr. Lauria Fitzgerald had worked her way across the debris and filth, she and Annie embraced, the two of them surrounded by the cluttered piles of bags and makeshift bedding that were all of Annie's possessions in the world. Inside Annie, a tiny life waited to be born in a few months -- her 13th child.

As on almost every other day in the week, Fitzgerald had come to visit some of the countless homeless men and women in the Bronx. They are a large part of her days, and they include prostitutes, addicts, alcoholics and others who remain invisible to people in other parts of the city.

Fitzgerald and Annie talked for a few minutes about the pregnancy and about a visit to the clinic later in the week. Fitzgerald then asked if anyone else was around, and Annie pointed to another patch of darkness about 20 feet away.

Fitzgerald found her way over to a tall black man bent over on a cane and obviously in pain. Three nights earlier, someone had stabbed Ray in the thigh. Ray lay in the street until Fitzgerald came and helped him into the back of her van and then helped him find his way back into the warehouse. He refused to go to the hospital, and he hadn't yet seen a doctor. So Fitzgerald, fearful of gangrene setting in, made him promise he would go with her to the doctor when she returned in about an hour. Ray nodded and fell back on his mattress of rubble.

Besides the knives, there were other dangers, other hungers. They come and go and come again out of nowhere, day and night.

Just another day

It was just the beginning of another day for Fitzgerald, a short, puckish, electric Dominican Sister of Blauvelt who, for the last seven years, has been driving around the poorest Congressional district in the country, one overridden with AIDS, while searching out the homeless that she feeds and tries to help in any way she can.

On this day, her '90 Plymouth van was loaded with rolls, cheese, soda and muffins when she left the Highbridge Community Life Center and began her daily routine, which usually ends late at night. The two back seats in the van had been removed so she could squeeze in more food.

"I think I bring food to an average of about 50 people a day, mostly at night, along with a volunteer. And I sometimes don't get home until two in the morning. The Life Center, of which I am part, gives me about $150 a week to buy food, but that can get spread pretty thin. I used to get leftover food from the Bronx House of Detention, but that stopped a while ago. It was a big help while it lasted. As far as getting the food now, it's a little bit here, a little bit there."

Fitzgerald was born in the Bronx. Her mother was a nurse and her father was an undercover narcotics detective in the same section of the Bronx where she now spends her days and nights searching out the uncharted numbers of homeless who are buried in the shadows of bridges, hidden under cardboard blankets, sleeping in cars or trucks or abandoned buildings. The longer she searches, the more she finds, going places where few dare venture.

"For five days a week, I take some of them to clinics or hospitals, drive them to visit relatives, go to court with them or visit them in Riker's Island if they've been arrested. Then, on three of those five nights, I try to find as many of them as I can and bring them something to eat."

The van turned another corner, and Fitzgerald drove alongside a building that had recently been gutted by fire and whose windows and doors were now sealed up with concrete to keep out the homeless.

The van slowed to a stop as Fitzgerald jumped out and walked over to a small, uneven space in the concrete that had been broken through, offering just enough entrance for some of the homeless that found shelter there. She got down on her knees and yelled inside, but there was no answer. She would come back again later.

'She's just like us'

As she drove, she laughed and pointed to the dashboard and the small tray of costume jewelry given to her by several homeless prostitutes who live near the water and line up along River Avenue at night. "They get offended if I don't wear the rings and bracelets they give me, so I wear it when I go to see them and bring them food. A few weeks ago, a few of them met our pastor from Sacred Heart Church as he walked toward the rectory. 'Do you know Fitzgerald?' one of them asked him. 'Well, she's our friend. She's just like one of us.' He enjoys telling the story, I guess.

"Humor is very important for everyone who is out here. One day, Caroline, a homeless transvestite, called me very excitedly from across the street and came running over to show me a new dress. He was so excited he gave me a big hug, but suddenly the containers holding the water in his 'breasts' broke and went all over us. Everyone there with us broke up laughing."

A religious for nine years, Fitzgerald worked among the poor in Appalachia for seven years as a Glenmary volunteer. "I love being with people, seeing where they're at, them accepting me and me accepting them. I've never met such faithful people or people with as much courage as here among the homeless.

"And as a community on the street, I sometimes feel they have a better community life than some religious communities because they really care about each other."

She stopped the van again and pointed to another empty lot filled with gravel and rocks and covered over at one corner with makeshift walls of cardboard and old wood. "People live there, but I don't think anyone's there now. It reminds me of an African village built on the side of the hill. And they keep building more and more on top of it."

There was a deserted trailer truck along the way where another man was living, but he wasn't "home" at the moment. So Fitzgerald filled a plastic bag with a sandwich, a muffin and a bottle of soda and left it inside the truck for him.

A few blocks away, she stopped the van again when she spotted Dennis and Terence. Dennis had lost a few toes to frostbite during the winter a year ago. He began chatting with Fitzgerald while she put several slices of cheese on a sandwich and gave him an extra muffin for later. She also talked with Terence about going with him for his Medicare card during the week. "They live on the street so they don't have an address, so they use my address for all their mail, whether it's health cards or social service things or letters from their family."

Back in the van, she showed off the St. Patrick's Day card she had received from Katie, who also enclosed a few photos of a beautiful young woman and her mother. "Katie was homeless for a year and a half and lived over there in that abandoned building just behind Yankee Stadium.

"She and one of the homeless men got married when she was here, and I helped them get an apartment, but the marriage didn't work out. But now, she's living happily in California, has two jobs, attends AA and has been clean for 18 months. She stays in touch, but I miss seeing her every day with that big smile of hers."

In addition to Katie's card and occasional notes from others, Fitzgerald also has several small wooden crosses that some of the men have carved and given her. "I have them all," she said, "and I will keep them always. I also have a Bible that one of the men carved out of a bar of soap while he was in jail at Riker's Island. He even carved in a passage."

Yankee Stadium is something of a red flag for Fitzgerald and anyone else associated with the Highbridge Community Life Center, including people like Jim Sugrue, a volunteer helper. He was outraged at reports that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner wants to build a new stadium with what Sugrue said is little regard for the poor in the area.

"And it's ironic that some of the same taxpayers who are always complaining about the poor and the high cost of welfare are going to end up paying the tab for whatever Steinbrenner wants. The whole thing's a disgrace. All those people and all that money inside the stadium. And people going hungry right outside."

Too busy to fret

But Lauria Fitzgerald was too busy searching out the homeless to fret about George Steinbrenner.

"Occasionally, a couple of the men will get into a fight on the street, but I'll keep out of it. When the women fight, I try to break it up. But a few times, one of them pulled a knife on the other, so I backed off. But they are all very protective of me. If someone curses while I'm around, the rest of them will get after him or her. And if, for some reason, I don't show up for a few days, they worry that somebody hurt me.

"A woman once asked me why I don't pray more with them, but I do pray. Before the two pig roasts I have every year, I say a prayer. And each night, with each prostitute, I say, 'God keep you safe tonight.' And they will say 'God bless you, and pray for me, Sister.' Do these women ever feel that I'm judging them? I hope not.

"The worst times of the year are the winter, naturally, and then summertime," she continued. "That's when all the young gangs are out on the street, and they can be very violent and cruel to the homeless. Annie was beaten severely in the park two years ago, and one of her eyes still doesn't open. There are a lot of homeless Vietnam vets, and I feel so badly about them. They fought so hard and gave so much for their country, and here they are out on the street."

Sugrue later said that among the homeless men and women Fitzgerald sees every day is a man called Carlos, a Vietnam veteran from Puerto Rico. "I've seen him with tears in his eyes after Sister Lauria has come and spent some time talking to him. The fact that someone actually cares about him and what happens to him touches him very deeply every time she comes. For most of them, the feeling is there that they are totally alone and forgotten. And then someone like Sister Lauria comes along, and she obviously cares very much about Carlos and how he is. We can't even imagine what that means to him."

Fitzgerald pulled the car over to the curb because she and Willie had spotted each other. She had been looking for him. Over the weekend, she promised Willie she would drive him to Ossining in upstate New York so he could visit his 85-year-old father. Annie wanted to go along with them, so the itinerary had to be settled.

Fitzgerald made Willie a sandwich while they talked. Dressed in black slacks and purple sweater with a tiny silver cross around her neck, she was as ordinary as any other woman driving around the Bronx, meeting with old friends. There was a loud, cheerful hello for everyone she met, and all were glad to see her and take a bag of food. The only time she didn't smile was when children were mentioned.

No street children

"As you can see," she told a visitor, "there are no homeless children on these streets. I won't tolerate that. There's no reason for a child to be homeless. There are plenty of foster homes, and social services has many shelters and other programs. There's no reason for anything else. And if I see a child, I report it without waiting a second."

Once in a while, Fitzgerald will share a meal in the back of an abandoned truck with some of the homeless. She used to carry a few cigars for special occasions, and she mentioned that some who are fighting drug problems crave sweets.

"I don't have an office and my convent is Siena House, a shelter for homeless pregnant and nursing women. But there are no conditions set down on what I do. My mother says she is very proud of me. But I also know that she says the rosary for me every day."

Meanwhile, back at Highbridge Community Life Center, Br. Ed Phelan, a La Salle Christian Brother and the executive director of the center and its many services, talked about many of the same impulses as Fitzgerald.

"We serve over 10,000 people in this area of the southwest Bronx," he began, "and our job is simply to move people to self-sufficiency in any way that's humanly possible. We have adult ed, youth education, an after-school center for kids, homeless families in apartments, people on public assistance looking for jobs, HIV prevention and education, and several other community services.

"We also have one of the richest employers in the country with multimillion-dollar employees only a few blocks away at Yankee Stadium, and the owner has played no role whatsoever in trying to help neighbors who are homeless and hungry right under the shadow of his stadium.

"But we try to help our people think creatively about the problems we face. We have a great group of young college-age staff and volunteers, and they are part of the future," he said.

"The traditional ways of doing things and cursing the darkness don't change anything. We have to look at things in a different way than in the past. Hope is the only thing that you have left when you have no hope."

And for a pregnant woman sitting alone in the darkness of an abandoned warehouse or a man missing a few toes and standing in the middle of the street or a young prostitute putting aside a favorite ring for a friend, there is a cheese sandwich and a summer pig roast and the familiar sight of a blue Plymouth van moving through the streets. And hope.

And, always, Fitzgerald. With no sermons to preach or conversions to make or any snappy slogans for anything that she does. Just all that food in the back of the van, the directions to Willie's father in Ossining and a small tray of fake jewelry and hand-carved wooden crosses that are among her greatest treasures in the world.

"I feel bad about Annie being pregnant again and I take some responsibility for it even though it's not mine," Fitzgerald said a little wistfully as she finally parked the van outside the center. "I should have taken her by the hand and made sure her tubes were tied.

"But I feel good about two couples who are getting married and that I was able to help find rooms in a hotel. Like everything else, it's one step at a time."

And so it is with Fitzgerald, her boundless energy, her loaves and fishes for the multitude and her pixy smile crackling across the Bronx, every step of the way.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997