Sister Mary Rose McGeady, D.C., was not looking for a job 13 years
ago when the job she has now—president of Covenant House—came looking
for her. If there had been a want ad describing the position, it
would have said something like this:
“President and CEO needed for major international childcare agency
in serious financial and organizational trouble. Public image has
been badly tarnished. Agency’s future is in doubt, although the
need for its services is acute and growing. The successful candidate
must have an outstanding background in childcare, plus academic
credentials, exceptional administrative and fund-raising ability,
limitless compassion for young people, the highest professional
values and energy that never runs out.”
When the post opened up in 1990, Sister Mary Rose was associate
director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn. She
oversaw more than 80 programs, a staff of 800 and an annual budget
of about $40 million. A Daughter of Charity for 44 years, she had
spent much of her religious life in childcare. She was highly respected
in the social-service field and was an outspoken advocate for the
The Covenant House search committee asked her to take on leadership
of the agency, but she declined. She was very happy with her work
in Brooklyn and did not want to leave it. Besides, Covenant House
posed an enormous challenge.
Up for the Challenge?
The agency had been devastated by scandal. Its founder and leader,
Conventual Franciscan Father Bruce Ritter, was accused of sexual
and financial misconduct. He denied any wrongdoing and was never
charged with criminal activity, but the allegations led to his 1990
resignation as its director.
The allegations also compromised the agency’s good name and shook
the faith of the donors whose contributions were essential to its
work. Donations dropped drastically and the agency’s debt climbed
to $38 million. Covenant House staff struggled to keep its services
afloat while the agency’s image took a beating from the steady drumbeat
of negative publicity.
“I didn’t know if anybody could save this place,” Sister Mary
Rose said in a recent interview. Then the board asked her again
to take the job. She had already been having second thoughts about
her initial refusal.
“I felt like the hand of God was on me, like a call,” she says.
She went on retreat for a few days to pray and talk with her spiritual
“I asked God to give me a sign that this was what he wanted,”
she recalls. Then she found herself thinking: What have I got
to lose? I’ve spent my whole life working with kids. I’m 62. I don’t
have to make a reputation or lose a reputation. I’ll give it my
She cut a deal with God in prayer.
“I said, ‘If you want me to do this, I will do it,’” she says.
“‘But if you want Covenant House to survive, it’s your project.
Let’s make a covenant, you and me. Together we’ll work to save this
And as a recent study proved, she not only saved Covenant House—with
God’s help, as she no doubt would insist—she made it stronger and
better than ever.
A Lifetime of Service
Mary Rose McGeady was born on June 28, 1928, in Hazelton, Pennsylvania,
the second of three children—a boy and two girls—of Catherine and
Joseph McGeady. Her father was an air conditioning engineer with
the U.S. Department of the Interior. When she was in first grade,
the family moved to Washington, D.C., where she attended Holy Comforter
Parish school and graduated from Immaculate Conception Academy,
operated by the Daughters of Charity. As a high school student she
volunteered on weekends at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum in Washington.
“I’ve always loved kids,” she says. She adds that her parents
had “a tremendous sense of empathy” for those in need. So it was
a natural choice for her, at 18, to enter the Daughters of Charity,
who take a fourth vow—in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience—to
serve the poor.
Asked what part of their mission most appealed to her, Sister
Mary Rose replies that she wanted to work with children. At 19 she
was sent to the Home for Destitute Catholic Children in Boston.
She taught fifth and sixth grades and helped with day-to-day childcare.
“I loved teaching,” she says. “I loved being with the kids.”
In Boston she earned a degree in sociology at Emmanuel College.
Later she earned a master’s in clinical psychology at Fordham University
and did doctoral studies in psychology at Fordham and at the University
In 1957 she was named executive director of the Astor Home for
Children in Rhinebeck, New York, sponsored by Catholic Charities
of the New York Archdiocese for children with severe emotional disturbance.
When she arrived, the home served only boys; she opened it to
girls. She opened local child-guidance centers as well as Astor’s
first group home for adolescent boys returning to the community.
She obtained grants and negotiated affiliations with colleges and
universities for student field training in child psychiatry, psychology
and social work.
Sister Mary Rose recalls that as a childcare executive she saw
firsthand the shift from “the old orphanage concept” to the residential
therapeutic approach, in which an agency provides “more than custodial
care.” It would influence her work at Covenant House.
In 1966 she became executive director of Nazareth Child Care Center
in Boston, which succeeded the orphanage where she had previously
worked. In 1971 she went to the Diocese of Brooklyn as executive
director of the Learning Center for Exceptional Children; later
she became a regional director with Catholic Charities.
At the same time, she worked with Daughters of Charity and Vincentian
Fathers—both congregations trace their roots to St. Vincent de Paul—to
develop services at St. John the Baptist Parish in Brooklyn’s blighted
She was named director of mental health services for Brooklyn
Catholic Charities in 1973, when mentally ill persons were being
deinstitutionalized and many had nowhere to go but the street. She
opened mental-health clinics, day-treatment programs, workshops
and alternative living programs. Under her direction, Catholic Charities’
mental health budget rose from $300,000 to more than $6 million.
Focusing on the Poor
In 1981, Sister Mary Rose became provincial superior of her congregation’s
Northeast Province, based in Albany, New York. At that time it had
350 sisters serving in education, health care, social service and
as missionaries. Sister Mary Francis Martin, D.C., the current provincial
and a former teacher, was a councilor on the leadership team during
Sister Mary Rose’s tenure.
“Her primary thrust was always toward the poor,” Sister Mary Francis
recalls. “She was a focused leader, and she had a vision that guided
her. She knew what she was about, and she could inspire people.”
But she also was “very collaborative, always looking to make connections,”
Sister Mary Francis adds.
“You could disagree with her and it was never taken personally.
You didn’t have to walk on eggs,” she says. “You could be yourself.
She was easy to give counsel to; she’d accept opinions she didn’t
necessarily agree with.
“She always had a heart for the sister who was sick or hurting
or struggling,” Sister Mary Francis continues, and that’s one reason
she works so well with children. “She has a depth of understanding
for people who are hurting,” the provincial adds, “and there’s nobody
more vulnerable than a kid in childcare.”
After six years, Sister Mary Rose returned to the Brooklyn Diocese
as associate executive director of Catholic Charities, responsible
for mental-health services and programs for youth and families as
well as elderly, homeless and disabled persons. About 80 percent
of her budget came from public funding, so she also was responsible
for fiscal reporting. On behalf of those she served, she often went
to Albany to speak with officials of the New York State Office of
Mental Health. By her own account, she could be unrelenting when
it came to lobbying for the poor.
Taking On Her Greatest Challenge
It was a talent she would need at Covenant House. When she became
president, no challenge was greater than restoring confidence in
the agency and reversing its financial slide. She spent much of
her first four years traveling around the country to speak to groups
“I said, ‘Leave judgment to God. Let’s pick up and carry this
place forward,’” she recalls. “And they did.” A key reason that
she was successful, she says, is that she believes in the kids who
come to Covenant House.
She told stories about real kids like Ann, who was being abused
by her mother’s lover and took a bus from Ohio to Manhattan, where
she was lured, unwittingly, into prostitution. Terrified, she managed
to escape and ran to a policeman, who got her to safety at Covenant
An Agency Reborn
Today Covenant House is once again financially sound. Sister Mary
Rose points out, however, that it has only a small endowment; 92
percent of its income comes from regular donors.
“Nothing is more important about Covenant House than the people
who support us,” she says. “This agency would not exist without
the donors. I cannot sing their praises loud enough.”
She also has high praise for the agency’s staff. She spent a lot
of time meeting with them in the early days. Their commitment “had
been battered” by the crisis, she says, and she wanted to reassure
them that “they were doing the work of God.
“What really saved Covenant House, much more than me, was the
tremendous dedication and fidelity of the staff,” she says.
James Harnett, chief operating officer of Covenant House for 18
years, works directly with Sister Mary Rose. He says that as leader
of the agency, she is “relentless” at focusing on “the needs of
the kids,” but not as a faceless group. “She always comes back to
individual kids,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard her give
a speech in which she doesn’t mention individual kids.”
Harnett has known Sister Mary Rose since both were Catholic Charities
regional directors in the Brooklyn Diocese. He describes her as
highly dedicated and courageous, a leader who “took on the responsibility
[for Covenant House] at a time when very few people would do it.
“For that, Covenant House will always be in her debt,” he says.
He praises the way she has built up unity within the agency. With
Covenant House facilities in 21 cities, it takes a lot of hard work
and skill “to keep everyone moving in the same direction,” he remarks.
Sister Mary Rose initiated a strategic plan a few years ago that
clearly defined the agency’s goals and led to an enhanced sense
of unity as well as “tremendous growth.”
Expanding Covenant House’s Outreach
When Sister Mary Rose arrived, the agency was in 12 cities; today
it is in 21, with 15 facilities in the United States, two in Canada
and one each in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. She initiated
job-training and life-planning programs to give kids real-life goals,
such as obtaining a job and an apartment, and the means to reach
them. She established community centers to offer counseling and
other services in a neighborhood setting to reach kids before they
run away from home.
Every Covenant House has at least one community center, and New
York City has seven. In Manhattan, its home base, Covenant House
has two buildings that offer crisis accommodations and one residence
for young mothers and their babies.
Officials and staff knew they were successful by the number of
kids who went on to complete their education and find employment,
but they wanted corroboration from an outside source. Sister Mary
Rose asked the Menninger Institute, one of the nation’s foremost
organizations in assessing and promoting behavioral health, to develop
a method to measure the efficacy of Covenant House services.
Menninger personnel and Covenant House staff members worked together
for 18 months to develop a methodology, then carried out the evaluation,
which assessed Covenant House services to more than 1,600 young
people served at Covenant House sites in New York and California.
“The data were so encouraging, we want to tell the whole world,”
Sister Mary Rose says.
Reviewing the Program and Its Effectiveness
The study was done in two parts: The Assessment Project gathered
information about the kids who seek shelter at Covenant House, and
Project Connect measured how Covenant House intervention affected
them, following up with kids at intervals of two weeks, three months
and six months after they had left.
The first part revealed that the young people who come to Covenant
House are, as the agency has said, among the most troubled kids
in the country. Many have known poverty, abuse and neglect. Although
the agency tries to reunite kids with their families, often it is
Sister Mary Rose remarks that on her first trip to Covenant House
in New Orleans 11 years ago, she was told that 30 percent of kids
could return home; today the figure is between two and three percent.
“Our kids are refugees from the deterioration of the family,”
she says. “We don’t get kids from stable families. We get kids who
have been beaten, abused, sexually molested.”
Others have been in the foster-care system and have been forced
to leave because they have reached the age of 18. And some, Sister
Mary Rose says, have “couch-surfed,” moving from one makeshift space
to another in the homes of friends or relatives.
“They run out of couches,” she says. “They end up on the street
or in prostitution or drug rings.” Many are dropouts; almost two
thirds lack a high school diploma. They have little or no job experience.
“Without Covenant House,” she adds, “there literally is no place
for these kids to go.”
The first step in helping them is to take them off the street,
feed and clothe them, and get them home if possible. Those who can’t
go home are helped to make a plan for the future that will lead
to employment and independent living. That means education and job
The second part of the Menninger study, which followed up young
people who came to Covenant House in New York, found that six months
after discharge, 70.5 percent of the kids had “favorable housing”—on
their own, in a family residence or in a transitional living program
like Covenant House’s Rights of Passage. Of those who enrolled in
one of the agency’s job-training programs, 48.6 percent were employed.
The programs include building maintenance, computer and office skills,
desktop publishing, culinary arts, financial services, nurse’s aide,
public safety and silk-screen printing.
Of the kids coming to Covenant House, only seven percent had a
high school diploma or GED. After six months, 26.3 percent of those
who had used the agency’s educational services had earned a diploma.
Responses from the kids were also encouraging. Asked whether the
agency met their immediate needs and gave them a safe place to live,
almost 90 percent said yes.
Covenant House is using the study results to assess the quality
and results of its services, to decide how best to use its resources
and to better understand what helps troubled kids to turn their
It’s All About the Kids
Sister Mary Rose continues her advocacy.
“We see ourselves as an agency not only to care for the children,
but to be the voice of voiceless kids,” she says. “We do a considerable
amount of work with people who are policymakers to try to educate
them to what’s happening to children in our society.”
Last year she went to Washington nine times to speak with senators
about the Foster Care Bill, which provides for continued care up
to age 21.
“We try very hard to get good policies for kids, even if we as
an agency don’t directly benefit from them,” she says. “If it’s
going to be good for kids, it’s good for us.”
She has loved children since she first worked with them in orphanages.
“I always had a soft spot for these kids who had no families,”
she recalls. At the Astor Home, she continues, “I saw kids who were
the bottom of the barrel, kids who had been expelled from the school
system, kids that everyone had washed their hands of. And with the
right kind of love and care, you could bring them around....There’s
such a crater of unfulfilled need for love and care in the hearts
of these kids.”
She takes deep joy in knowing how many lives she changed.
“There are thousands of kids walking behind me,” she says. Many
of them send her cards, letters and flowers on Mother’s Day. Last
year she attended a reunion in Boston for those who had been in
the orphanage when she worked there; 75 “kids” showed up whom she
hadn’t seen in about half a century. She says it was as if the Lord
said to her, “Here’s a reward. You haven’t wasted your life. Look
at all these kids who turned out so well.”
“This is the work of God, the work of the Church, the work of
St. Vincent de Paul,” Sister Mary Rose says.
Harnett, the agency’s chief operating officer, says that he thinks
of Sister Mary Rose “first and foremost as a religious woman, a
woman of the Church and especially as a Daughter of Charity” who
exemplifies the community’s “unparalleled commitment to the poor.”
It is obvious that Sister Mary Rose’s faith, religious commitment
and professional service are tightly interwoven to make the seamless
garment that is her life.
In June of this year, when she turns 75, Sister Mary Rose will
retire as president and chief executive officer of Covenant House.
As of mid-December, her replacement had not yet been named.
“I can’t tell you where my life experience and my vocation meet,”
Sister Mary Rose says. “I was sent, as part of my vocation, to poor
kids, and I have loved it. I have always felt that was the blessing
of my vocation: that I was sent to these kids, and I loved it.”
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