Society: The Power Nun

Unlikely socialite Sister Mary Scullion has become the consummate Philly insider in her mission to save the city’s most desperate outsiders

Such is the unexpected life of Mary Scullion: You will bump into her at benefits all over town. She has an unlikely, very close friendship with the Honickmans, with whom she spends weekends at the Shore, sees movies all the time (I  [Heart] Huckabees most recently), and has burger nights at Smith & Wollensky. She also hangs out with Project H.O.M.E. supporters Robert McNeil (Tylenol), the Connelly family (Crown Cork & Seal), and Pat Croce (you know him), and can get a call back in minutes from Rendell or Specter, the latter of whom she praised in that widely aired campaign ad. “She’s a rock star in her community,” says Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas. “There’s no baloney with Sister Mary,” says “An Affair to Remember” singer Vic Damone. He and his wife, Rena Rowan Damone, have dined with Scullion in Margate, where the Damones have a home.

“She’s addicted to her BlackBerry,” says her friend Sharon Gallagher, a public-­relations executive who jogs on Kelly Drive with Scullion. Sister Mary, a half-marathoner, often leaves Mayor Street in her dust. “She beats him,” says Rowan Damone. “Someone told me the Mayor is afraid of her.” (Scullion stormed City Council chambers in the mid-1980s with homeless supporters, and beat Rendell and Street in federal court in a 1994 suit to open a Project H.O.M.E. residence and offices at 1515 Fairmount Avenue.)

It seems strange that this hobnobbing, politically connected player is our icon of homelessness. But like the Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa, to whom she has been compared by journalists and her supporters, Scullion, who never wears a habit and is mostly in jeans, needs to wield her charisma as the public face of Project H.O.M.E., which she co-founded in 1989 with a CPA named Jean Dawson-McConnon, who now oversees the financial end of the organization.

Scullion’s trip from Oxford Circle to activist and black-tie regular began when she was a teenager in the late 1960s: The daughter of two Irish immigrants, a nurse’s aide and a Philadelphia City Council clerk, she was doing outreach with the sisters who taught at her North Philly high school, Little Flower, when everyone else was doing idiotic things at the Shore. By the mid-’70s, she had graduated from St. Joseph’s University and taken vows in the Sisters of Mercy, a 10,000-member order of nuns who make an additional oath to serve the poor. (The well-endowed Sisters of Mercy donate millions of dollars to Project H.O.M.E.)