e-mail us

Cover story

She has great job for the right applicant

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Shreveport, La.

Don't read this story. It's a trap. The punchline is that someone's dangling a typical Catholic job offer: low pay, no promotions and lots of hard work. Including raising money.

The someone is Sr. Margaret McCaffrey, who arrived here in 1970 broke and with no plan, and ended up as one of the largest slumlords in the city.

Now McCaffrey, 69, is dying. She is less concerned about death from her relentless lung cancer than she is about the survival of the Christian Service Program.

So she's searching -- for a person, a couple or a team that can bring love and organizational skills to what the program is and represents:

  • Hospitality House (once known as "The Cotton Club"), which serves about 200 breakfasts and lunches seven days a week.
  • Mother Stewart House with its 14 private rooms for women with no place to stay. (It is named for a Ledbetter Heights, Shreveport, woman much loved for her goodness and generosity.)
  • Herbert House with its private rooms for 15 men. (It is named for a former client, a sweet and gentle soul known as "Big Man" Herbert.)
  • The Center, a drop-off clothing depot and free shopping spot for people in need of clothes and food for themselves and their children.
  • Katy House, a cheery, pink Victorian three-bedroom available for program volunteer workers -- or the new team.
  • Samaritan Houses, for people who have suddenly lost their homes.

Twenty-seven years ago, Shreveport interrupted McCaffrey's own journey. Raised in a Catholic home in Birmingham, Ala., Margaret McCaffrey was a clerk in a railroad office when, in 1951, she entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity congregation.

She worked for Catholic Charities in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Louisiana -- that's where she met Fr. Murray Clayton.

After two decades, McCaffrey left the Trinitarians because she was being channeled into administrative work when she wanted to work directly with the poor. She joined an experimental religious community sponsored by Bishop Charles Buswell of Pueblo, Colo., and worked with migrant laborers.

In 1969, Clayton, newly named pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Shreveport, tracked McCaffrey down in an East Austin, Texas, ghetto and asked her to come help him with the poverty surrounding his parish. She arrived in January. "I had no idea what I'd be doing," she said, "I left that to the Holy Spirit."

She moved into a section of the city isolated by a new highway and began working in a school breakfast program. Soon after, she took private vows with the approval of the late Bishop Charles T. Greco of Alexandria, La.

McCaffrey followed children home from school, knocked on the doors of their deteriorated homes and apartments, met their parent or parents and asked what the children needed most. When she found out, she begged from the local merchants to meet the needs. She found families facing emergencies and abused women with no place to go; she met the newly and long-term homeless, and the sick.

With volunteers she started organizing picnics, collecting presents at Christmas, repairing bicycles to give to children. But an organization was needed so, in January 1970, she started one, at the outset sponsored by a Catholic parish.

In 1982 it became an independent, nonprofit group. Over the years, with each new challenge, McCaffrey sought a solution and added a new building to her run-down empire. With local medical professionals, she also helped create the Martin Luther King Medical Clinic.

Gradually she took the toughest step, changing the group from a voluntary organization to one with paid staff. Today there are seven full-time and four part-time staffers -- all making minimum wage, as does McCaffrey.

So much for the upside, with the growing support, the speaking engagements, the endorsement of the governor, national awards, an annual telethon, the volunteers.

Then in 1991 McCaffrey openly opposed the Gulf War. She and other Pax Christi USA members encircled a downtown park and prayed that war might be averted. As bombing started, the prayers continued. In Shreveport, this attitude was seen by many as disloyalty to the troops.

Local hawks flocked to the park. Some revved their motorcycles to drown out the prayers. Pickup trucks carried signs like, "Nuke 'em till they glow & shoot 'em at night," and "Go to hell, Margaret." Support for the program dropped precipitously. The Telephone Pioneers, long loyal backers and refurbishers of Katy House, cut off their support.

When the Gulf War ended, the animosity did not. Several regular supporters stopped sending their checks; speaking engagements dried up; and hate mail crowded McCaffrey's mail box and filled the letters pages of local newspapers.

Clayton, now a monsignor and pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, said recently, "What Christian Service tried to do is provide for the poor and confront the issues. Alienating people is part of the risk."

"There are those who want to help the poor but who feel uncomfortable if social issues -- the death penalty, for example -- gets mixed in. And there are those who want to speak out against nuclear weapons, but can't take time to care for the poor."

The telethon continues but the annual budget is now around $300,000, down from $500,000 in 1990, before the Gulf War. McCaffrey regrets the loss of former friends and supporters.

When McCaffrey talks to Clayton about her death and her funeral, she wants him to emphasize precisely that -- that charity is not enough, that justice also means working to change the system no matter what the risk.

She has two teaching favorites picked out that she hopes Clayton will use at the funeral, the Magnificat and Isaiah 58. The latter asks, "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the the homeless poor into your house?"

Interested in the job? Write McCaffrey at 131 Dalzell St., Shreveport LA 71104.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997