Departing sisters leave ‘Lantern Light’ glowing
While serving the homeless from her ministerial hub behind St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue, Presentation Sister Vera Butler would see New Orleans’ “have-nots” performing the most astonishing acts of selflessness.
There were the times she would catch the homeless giving the literal “shirt off their back” to a shivering stranger and digging into their pockets to help someone with his bus fare.
There were the countless mornings Sister Vera would arrive for work troubled by some minor personal concern, only to hear the homeless say “I am blessed” when asked how things were going.
But what would really touch the nun’s heart was the sight of the poor offering part of their meal to those who had arrived too late for the ministry’s hot lunch service, which feeds about 200 people each weekday.
“It may be their only meal of the day but they are willing to share it,” marveled Sister Vera, who is being reassigned to her San Antonio-based provincial this month after 18 years as founding director of the Presentation Sisters’ CBD-based “Lantern Light” ministry.
Daytime haven for homeless
In addition to lunch, Lantern Light’s daytime-only outreach – all aimed at getting the homeless back on their feet – includes help with certified photo IDs, résumé writing, food stamp registration, prescriptions and other needs commonly addressed by social workers and notaries. Every month, Lantern Light’s mailroom gives about 300 individuals without a permanent address a place to pick up their personal mail and vital documents, while vibrant art and music programs offer creative outlets to the street-weary.
Lantern Light’s life-affirming services are dispensed by volunteers in a lush, decked courtyard and adjoining office suite located within the larger Catholic collaborative known as the Rebuild Center.
Presentation Sister Enid Storey, an 11-year veteran of Lantern Light who also is leaving the city this month for a new assignment in New Windsor, New York, remembers the time the center’s homeless guests observed a lunchtime minute of silence for those living in poverty throughout the world. They were invited to put their change into a jar for the Presentation Sisters’ missions in Zambia and Zimbabwe, ponying up $47.
“Imagine the poor giving to the poor! They wanted to help those who didn’t even have a meal like they were having that day,” recalled Sister Enid, 74. “It may have not been a lot of money, but it was really touching.”
God works through all
The departing sisters’ paths to homeless ministry reveal the diverse groups served by Catholic women religious.
Irish-born Sister Vera, 71, entered the convent in 1963, inspired by the Presentation Sisters who taught at her high school in her native Port Magee, County Kerry.
“My mother every night would pray the rosary for vocations,” said Sister Vera, who had been accepted into courses of study in nursing and air hostessing but went on to become the sole religious vocation from her family of five siblings.
“(The sisters’) lives were always so peaceful – I saw their dedication, their commitment, and they had a great sense of hospitality,” Sister Vera recalled.
After two years of teaching kindergarten in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Sister Vera was missioned to a four-classroom school in Louisville, Colorado, to teach fifth and sixth graders. During that five-year tenure, she was asked by the pastor of the Catholic church at the University of Colorado in Boulder to coordinate the Legion of Mary.
“We would go down to the (dormitory) basements and see some of the students sleeping on the steps, and I thought, ‘These are the people doing Legion of Mary?’” said Sister Vera, who soon was humbled by the soup-kitchen work of her 20 young adults whom many had tagged as “hippies.”
“God works through everybody, even though sometimes we think it is only the devout,” she said. “In spite of living a rough kind of life, they were deeply spiritual, deeply caring about others. Some of them were living on the streets but they were helping others. I thought, ‘They have a real call. They are giving from the widow’s mite.’ It really opened my mind to the goodness of people, their gifts, their willingness to share.”
Sister Enid grew up an ocean away from her Irish colleague – in Corona, Queens – drawn to the Presentation Sisters who staffed her Manhattan high school. Sister Enid, who entered religious life in 1959, appreciated the sisters’ “sense of being human as well as being nuns” as they maintained excellent academic standards.
“When they talked to you they talked to you – it wasn’t like you were the student always. You could be somebody that would be a friend – not a chummy friend, but a friend,” she said. “We just got to know them and they were lots of fun. They were women of great integrity. They didn’t just teach you the subjects, you learned within the context of living in the big city.”
Sister Enid spent her first 12 years of professed sisterhood teaching primary grades in schools in New Jersey and New York and another six years as an elementary school principal in Rockaway, Queens.
In the early 1980s, she was re-missioned to care for aging sisters at her congregation’s New York infirmary, ultimately discerning a call to nursing and earning her RN at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York.
“When you’re a nurse you become a part of people’s actual daily living. You have conversations about some very intimate things that you don’t talk to everybody about,” Sister Enid said. “Sometimes I find God in some of that stuff.”
Sister Enid began an outreach ministry for the homebound at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in the Bronx, taking shut-ins holy Communion, dispensing health care advice and listening to their stories.
“A lot of it was helping people who had spouses who were terminally sick – people who were dealing with aging and dealing with being broken in so many different ways,” said Sister Enid, who came to realize that the greatest anxiety of her homebound patients and their caretakers sprang from their disconnection from “regular” sacramental life.
“I found anyone would talk to me,” she said. “You don’t talk down to patients. They’re not a baby. Sometimes in caring for people, we think of them as children. I think you need to respect who they are, where they are and the experiences they’ve had, and let them tell you.”
A ministry takes off
Meanwhile, Sister Vera, who had followed up her time in Colorado with teaching and administrative posts in Ireland, St. Clement of Rome in Metairie (1980-85) and Georgia, saw an ad in the Clarion Herald in 1998, at the end of her tenure as director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Vincentian Father Perry Henry, then-pastor of St. Joseph Church, was looking for someone to do social justice ministry and direct St. Joseph’s “Feed Jesus” program, launched a few years earlier after the late Deacon Angelas Robin Jr. shared his lunch with a homeless man on the church’s steps.
Sister Vera initially took the ministry from providing cold sandwiches each weekday to offering the occasional hot lunch when the church basement received an oven.
“In those early days (of Feed Jesus), ‘The Bucktown Boys’ – the Knights of Columbus from St. Louis King of France – brought hot lunch once a month,” she said.
Infusion of funding, helpers
In 2003, as the ministry outgrew its basement confines, Sister Vera nominated Feed Jesus for a major gift: the North American Conference of Presentation Sisters wanted to honor a milestone anniversary by choosing a single ministry in the entire world to fund. The newly named “Lantern Light” ministry in New Orleans was selected and the effort gained four additional Presentation Sisters: Marie Roche, Beth Driscoll, Joan White and Sister Enid, the latter who had become “smitten” with homeless ministry after working at a women’s shelter in Manhattan.
While Hurricane Katrina postponed their arrival date of Sept. 1, 2005, the unflappable Sister Vera and the four newcomers were taking beverages, snacks and MREs to returning residents and work crews by mid-October, attending Mass in powerless St. Joseph Church and staffing the Lantern Light trailer four days a week. Cards offering help, imprinted with the Lantern Light logo, were left in mailboxes and on doorknobs.
In recognition of her work with the homeless and working poor, Sister Vera received the 2006 national Lumen Christi Award, and in 2007, Lantern Light moved into the Rebuild Center, located just feet away from the site of the old Feed Jesus trailer. The center, in the heart of New Orleans’ burgeoning medical corridor, is a collaboration of Lantern Light; the Jesuit-run Father Harry Tompson Center of Immaculate Conception Parish in New Orleans, which provides showers, laundry, phones, legal aid, medical and mental health services, and hygiene kits; Vincentian-run St. Joseph Church, which donates space and financial assistance; and DePaul USA, which provides transportation and works with the Tompson Center to locate housing for the homeless.
Dozens of Catholic schools, churches and organizations make Lantern Light’s outreach possible, with the demand to serve so great that the ministry recently added a morning snack to its weekday offerings. Help also comes from the Protestant and interfaith communities, including Touro Synagogue, which cooks and serves the Christmas lunch so Christian helpers can be with their families.
“I think people are looking for opportunities (to serve). They may not have the time, the skills, the resources to do it constantly but everybody can do it once, twice, three times a year,” Sister Vera said. “Almost every day of the month has a different organization (volunteering).”
One of Sister Vera’s proudest moments was when a homeless guest ran up to a visiting Archbishop Gregory Aymond to report the following: “I’m 57 years of age and I’ve never been treated with as much reverence and respect as I have been here.”
Her volunteers’ work boils down to love, Sister Vera said.
“All those who cook and serve our meals prepare food that they would serve their best guests,” she said. “One of our guests once told me, ‘Sister, this is better than restaurant food!’”
Lantern Light’s new director is Kenitha Grooms-Williams. In addition to its ministry to the homeless, Lantern Light coordinates an emergency food and financial assistance program for the non-homeless poor of the Tulane-Canal neighborhood.