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

Billions of dollars were sitting in the ballroom of the Philadelphia Marriott on the eve of the presidential election last fall. Philanthropists Lynne and Harold Honickman (Pepsi-Cola bottling, #308 on the ’03 Forbes 400 list, $850 million) and Aileen and Brian Roberts (Comcast, #388 in Forbes, $625 million) were being honored for funding a $13.5 million learning center for Project H.O.M.E., a Philly nonprofit that provides housing and back-to-work programs for the impoverished.

The Evantine-decorated ballroom contained a Philadelphia who’s who: Lenny Klehr, David L. Cohen, John Street, Gretchen and Stephen Burke, Ralph and Suzanne Roberts, the extended Honickman family, developers Dean Adler and Hal Wheeler, Bob Costas. Even Ralph Yaffe from Boyds, where most of the suits worn had been purchased, was in the house. The Honickmans and Robertses, who had jointly endowed the gorgeous new learning center and computer lab on Judson Street in North Philly, were in the company of 800 guests, on a Monday Night Football night, at $500 a plate — as insane a price as the Academy Ball and the Ball on the Square.

“Hey, how you doin’?!’”

At the center of this schmoozathon, surrounded by egos as fat and unyielding as the filet mignons on all 800 plates, was a nun in a dark pantsuit, with a goose-honk laugh, a serious Philly accent, and short dark hair. The co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., Sister Mary Scullion, adorned only by a string of pearls and a band on her left ring finger, was smiling, radiant, greeting the Binswangers and Mayor Street and the Langfitts and Sueyun Locks with her gravelly-voiced, enthusiastic signature phrase: “Hey, how you doin’?!” Scullion looked comfortable, ­happy — happier than anyone else in the room, in this teeth-whitened, Chanel-scented crowd — despite the fact that she exists on a $1,000-a-month stipend from her Sisters of Mercy order, and until recently lived in a cell on the fourth floor of a North Philly residence for 25 recovering male drug addicts.

“Sister Mary showed us one trash-strewn lot,” said Aileen Roberts on the dais, as wineglasses clinked and steak knives sawed, describing a Scullion-led late-1990s tour of Judson Street, then a wasteland so scary you barely dared get out of the car. “This is where I want to build a technology center,” Scullion happened to mention, and then Aileen and Brian had looked at each other, and bells had gone off … yes, a technology center …

Scullion, 51, who is executive co-­director of a $10 million organization in Project H.O.M.E., is this city’s least likely power player. She may have dedicated her life to serving the least fortunate, but it’s also true that no one can tap wealth quite as effectively. Sister Mary can raise funds at Manny Stamatakis’s pace, and cajole as well as Ed Rendell. No other nun has appeared in a television testimonial for Arlen ­Specter — pro-choice Arlen Specter — during his reelection campaign, as Scullion did last fall, or had a 50th birthday soiree thrown by the Honickmans at Susanna Foo. You might wonder: Is God okay with that?
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.)
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?
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.
Then there is the Sister Mary of the streets, the one who directs the Project H.O.M.E. van throughout the city, doing outreach. She and her staff know the city’s street people, check on them daily, have bantering, intimate rapport with them. Scullion recently moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Judson Street — the first home since childhood that she hasn’t shared with other Sisters of Mercy or clients of one of her shelters. “I love it,” she says. There, she sometimes watches The West Wing, and cooks salmon for the Damones and the Honickmans and her Judson Street neighbors, ministering to her two very distinct, yet not so spiritually different, constituencies: the powerless and the powerful. Surely God is more than okay with that.

Early on this damp November morning, Scullion, in her wire-frame glasses, jeans and a fleece jacket, is walking down a café-filled street near Rittenhouse Square, asking “How you doin’?” of men sitting on stoops and clutching their possessions in Wawa bags. She comes upon a jaunty 60ish man named Buddy, whom she has seen around for years, and gives him a hug. Yes, Buddy says, today he would like to go back to the office and talk to a counselor about getting into a residence and alcohol rehab. “I’m getting too old to be doing all this drinking,” he adds, and Scullion chats with him about mutual friends on the ride back to Fairmount Avenue.