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Rebuilding Covenant House

By Claudia McDonnell

Thirteen years ago, Covenant House's future was in doubt. Then along came Sister Mary Rose McGeady.

Q U I C K S C A N

Up for the Challenge?
A Lifetime of Service
Focusing on the Poor
Taking On Her Greatest Challenge
An Agency Reborn
Expanding Covenant House's Outreach
Reviewing the Program and Its Effectivenes
It's All About the Kids

Mark My Words!

Photo from
Covenant House

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 poor.

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 director.

“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 best shot.

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 place.’”

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 of Massachusetts.

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 Bedford-Stuyvesant section.

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 of donors.

“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 House.

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 not possible.

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 training.

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 lives around.

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.”

For more information on Covenant House, visit their Web site.

     

Claudia McDonnell is a reporter and features editor for Catholic New York.

 


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