Wearing a quilted vest and khaki pants, Sister Vera Butler scurried from one end of the Rebuild Center to the other, organizing lunch for almost 200. "I’m too blessed to be depressed,” she smiled, explaining her unshakable optimism amid the poor and homeless in the Tulane-Gravier neighborhood.
After working 15 years at St. Joseph Church, she now serves as director of its Lantern Light Ministry. In 2007, Butler helped create the Rebuild Center behind the church, where four Presentation Sisters now operate a food pantry and free lunch program as well as providing housing assistance, birth certificate and ID assistance and medical care to people in need.
Founded in Ireland in 1775 by Nano Nagel, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary have the mission of serving the poor, Butler said.
The sisters based at St. Joseph Church — Butler, Enid Storey, Anna Raimon and Maureen Nolan — prepare food, clean up and socialize with guests in what are called “corporal works of mercy.”
Ten young pre-novitiates recently visited New Orleans, part of a process of discernment that helps them decide whether to choose the religious life.
“We really believe it is a special calling,” said Sister Julie Hurtado, who is based in San Antonio.
Hurtado, a registered nurse, administered neck and shoulder massages, touching guests in a “therapeutic way,” she said.
Massage is important to those who are homeless because they often sleep on the ground. Many people won’t even look at them, she said. There is value “just to be present and provide a listening ear.”
Tyrone Craig, who is disabled, sat on a bench under the wooden shelter while the sisters prepared the meal. In 2010, when his mother died, he found compassion at the Rebuild Center, he said.
“I like the sisters. They give me great comfort — to know that somebody cares,” said Craig who comes to the center daily.
It was nearly 12:50 p.m., the daily lunchtime, and a crowd was forming. “I wonder how they do it sometimes,” Craig marveled.
Wendell Sneed was already hungry and waiting in line. Before Hurricane Katrina he worked at Xavier University, but now sleeps “wherever night catches” him. Despite being homeless, Sneed can shower at the Rebuild Center, “trying to keep up appearances,” he said.
“It gives you self-esteem. You’ve taken a shower, eaten and now go out and do something,” said Sneed, who said he’s always looking for work.
“If it wasn’t for them, I think a lot of us would lose our wits,” he said.
Butler organized the staff and set up a serving line, as she does Monday through Friday. Once lunch was ready, she announced grace over a megaphone, adding a special prayer for God’s continued blessing. The crowd moved in orderly fashion, and lunch was quickly over.
Judah Leggett, 30, helped serve the meal. She teaches college history in San Antonio, but plans to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
“I’ve dated a lot, but always wanted more,” Leggett said. “My heart is at peace when I’m working with the church — I’m following my heart.”
After working for the better part of the day, the women gathered in the afternoon for prayer and sharing. Hurtado asked the young women whether they’d seen Christ in the people they served. They learn from the poor how to live simply and experience joy despite chaos in their lives, Hurtado said.
Jayne Pickett, 41, was a successful accountant before deciding to change course. After volunteering for three years with the Cabrini Mission Corps and earning a master’s degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, she has applied to join the congregation.
“It’s a good journey,” Pickett said.
Experiencing the ministry of the Presentation Sisters shows the women in discernment a sense of community, both at work and in the nuns’ living situation, Butler said.
The sisters believe their lives are enriched through the work they do with the hundreds of poor and homeless people who come to the center every week.
“They transform our lives and, hopefully, we transform theirs,” Butler said.
For more information on the Rebuild Center, go to www.stjosephchurch-no.org/rebuild.htm or call 504.273.5577.
Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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