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

Around 1980, before Scullion’s first arrest (for giving out food to people who had taken shelter in 30th Street Station), Americans began to live on the street in record numbers, as housing became wrenchingly expensive, and as mental-health policies changed, with formerly institutionalized psychiatric patients and Vietnam veterans turned loose with no means of support. Soon women and children were losing their homes, and Scullion saw what it was like to have no place to put your kids to bed or get ready for work each day. “The heater breaks at your house, you get evicted, overcrowded conditions — a number of things can drive anyone housed fragilely onto the street or into a shelter,” she says urgently, on a rare break between meetings at the Honickman Learning Center.

Scullion, who is widely credited with helping to reduce the number of city homeless from 800 to 200 over the past five years, and with having helped thousands of Philadelphians find long-term housing since Project H.O.M.E.’s launch, founded her first shelter, Women of Hope, on Lombard Street in 1985. She moved out of the Mercy convent at 13th and Pine and moved in with her clients when angry NIMBY neighbors left bomb threats at the door. Over the years, she has been arrested four times, and has spent countless nights walking down black, cold alleys in North Philly and Center City, searching for people who need shelter.

There is less time on the street now, but she gets out at least two nights each month. “Unbelievable!” says Pat Croce, who recalls Scullion talking a reluctant man into her car when Croce accompanied her one evening. “The guy smells like urine, it’s unbelievable!”

“This is really what made me happy,” Sister Scullion says, in her intense, gentle growl. She halts frequently and scrunches up her eyes in conversation when she’s concentrating or speaking impassionedly (which is most of the time). “The choice of not getting married or having a partner is a hard one, a difficult one, but ultimately there’s a lot of joy in what I do. God is definitely where the rubber meets the road, and often God reveals himself or herself to us outside the temple.”

Scullion’s methods have been controversial over the years, as in the freezing winter of 1988, when she helped a group of homeless advocates fight their way into the basement of the Municipal Services Building and use it as a shelter. She supports needle exchange, but follows the Catholic Church’s positions on contraception and abortion. Her Specter ad raised eyebrows, and irked Democrats. “I’m a Democrat,” says Scullion, but notes that Specter had supported child-care aid and health care for the homeless. “It wasn’t an easy decision, and we really looked into what I could and couldn’t do in terms of our nonprofit status.” Specter opponent Joe Hoeffel says he was surprised when he saw the ad. “She might have been a little politically naive to do it, but she’s entitled to her opinion,” he says. “There’s no hard feelings — she does wonderful work.” No wonder Hoeffel was surprised. Who would have thought a Catholic Democratic nun would have the cachet to help swing the election to a Republican pro-choice Jew?