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Tough love from tiny — but powerful — nun

Updated: December 22, 2012 6:22AM



Sister Therese O’Sullivan is tiny but mighty.

Nuns, we know, do not have to be big to be fierce.

And so, on Tuesday morning when the 4-foot-10-inch, 74-year-old sister slammed her fist down, the room went silent.

“I was pounding the table,” she confessed later. “It was not your usual Thanksgiving speech.”

Skip the Hallmark card. Cut to the chase.

That’s what Sr. Therese did on Tuesday when she gathered 28 women who, with their children, live at the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, the homeless shelter she runs at 6423 S. Woodlawn in Chicago.

“They knew I was really upset,” she said.

The problem?

Gratitude.

It’s a problem that afflicts rich and poor.

But for the homeless women of St. Martin de Porres, you might argue, what exactly do they have to be grateful for? They have lost everything.

Homes. Family. Security. Sobriety.

Hope.

That’s where Sister “In-Your-Face” Therese was ready for action on Tuesday.

“Take the blinders off!” she told them.

Women — black, white, Hispanic — have been coming to St. Martin de Porres for almost 30 years now. In the second stage of drug and alcohol recovery, they and their children live in a safe, clean, respectful home, where kids go to school as their mothers work to recover. There are computer classes, counselors, mentors, music programs, medical care and more.

It is far from easy. And many of the women are no longer so young. They range in age from mid-30s to mid-50s.

A baby due to be born next week will become the newest resident. But there are also grandmothers who, each weekend, try to re-bond with grandchildren by doing sleepovers at the shelter.

Sr. Therese’s fury on Tuesday was that she was seeing too much slippage. Women were skipping classes and missing counseling appointments.

“They were getting too casual about getting to their groups, not focused on their destination,” said Sr. Therese, whose work has turned around countless lives.

She has no patience for platitudes. Nor any time to waste. She has had to come up with $133,000 this year just to fix the roof of the shelter, a former Catholic school built in the 1920s.

Like a lot of Americans, Sr. Therese survives by the skin of her teeth. Private donations, help from some Catholic parishes and a modest amount of city-supplied food money have kept the shelter operational.

Volunteers and staff, some of them recovering addicts themselves, do the heavy lifting and will prepare a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, green beans and pumpkin and apple pies.

I have known Therese O’Sullivan for 30 years now. She doesn’t pity the poor; she lives among them. She respects that, but for the grace of God, some of the rest of us could be knocking at her door.

“It’s a privilege to work,” she told me as we wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.

“You can see the hand of God so closely.”



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