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?