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

In the late 1980s, Scullion got a call from a Rittenhouse Square novelist named Fredrica “Riki” Wagman. Wagman had had a startling encounter outside the Academy of Music with a homeless woman who’d run over and hugged her, then disappeared into the dark — Wagman had once known the woman from her old neighborhood and wanted to find her.

“Mary tells the story of me coming up the steps of her organization in a fur coat and high heels and nine skirts and 11 earrings. I started going on outreach with Mary and into the subways at night,” remembers Wagman, who now considers Scullion her best friend. “There were whole villages of people, and they were all glad to see her, and she knew all their names.” Scullion led Wagman to the woman she sought, on a corner a block from Wagman’s apartment, and the two eventually convinced the friend to live in a Project H.O.M.E. residence.

Wagman, with the McNeils and Connellys, was in the first wave of well-heeled Project H.O.M.E. supporters; mostly, they came to Scullion, and then she led them into North Philly. In 1993, Rena Rowan Damone, then the designer and partner in the billion-dollar Jones New York clothing business she founded, called Scullion for advice about how to provide housing to homeless women; Rowan Damone, who had endured poverty and hunger as a child in Siberia, has since endowed Project H.O.M.E. with $1.5 million for houses for homeless mothers and their children. “When I got to know Sister Mary, we always got her some Jones [clothes],” says Rowan Damone. “She looked great in Jones.”

“Having people like Riki and Howard [Wagman] involved, their relationship led to the Honickman relationship, and the Honickmans led to the Roberts relationship,” says Scullion; this is what’s known on the Main Line as “Jewish geography.” Throughout the ’90s, every time Scullion brought her wealthy potential supporters to Judson and Diamond streets and Fairmount Avenue, she saw them transformed. “I remember going with her and saying, ‘I’m a little afraid,’” recalls Rowan Damone. “She said, ‘Never be afraid when you’re with me.’” The Honickmans have also clocked significant moments around Judson Street. “The inequities were so outrageous, you couldn’t not get involved,” says Lynne Honickman. She once asked a Project H.O.M.E. resident what had been hardest for him about life on the street: “It’s being invisible,” he replied, and she could not forget his words.

Hence the $13.5 million Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Lab: It is gleaming and modern, a Starr-restaurant-looking place where several hundred kindergartners through high-school kids come from three to six o’clock every afternoon except Sunday. After their snack, they compose music digitally, make digital films, and boost their reading levels. Evening classes for adults range from GED preparation to Excel and Microsoft Word. “It had to be beautiful; the children there live with enough deprivation,” says Lynne Honickman, a longtime supporter of the New York City AIDS charity God’s Love We Deliver who now spends many of her days at the Learning Center.

So as she cared for the most helpless, Scullion also ministered to the city’s wealthiest and most powerful. “This has been an incredible blessing,” she explains, “because once [the Honickmans and Robertses] met many of the residents and the people in the neighborhood, there was no doubt in their minds that something had to be done.” That, to Scullion’s modest mind, answers the question posed by Brian Roberts at the opening of the Learning Center: “How did a nun get all this Jewish money for her charity?” Lynne Honickman thinks that being a Sister of Mercy gives Scullion a huge edge on other fund-raisers. “She has no other agenda; perhaps the vows she’s taken give automatic confidence,” says Honickman. Scullion’s occasional dropping of the f-bomb has a similarly trust-inspiring effect. “Where are those fucking car keys?” Sister Mary grumbled while rooting through her handbag at the end of a dinner honoring Rowan Damone.