The New York Times Remembers Sister Mary Rose
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, the Roman Catholic nun who resuscitated Covenant House, the nation’s largest network of shelters for homeless youngsters, in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving its founder, died Thursday at her order’s convent in Albany. She was 84.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Kevin M. Ryan, the current president of Covenant House.
“If there’s a more important job in America today than taking care of our troubled young people, I’m certainly not aware of it,” Sister Mary Rose said when she was chosen to lead Covenant House in 1990, after the resignation of the Rev. Bruce Ritter.
Father Ritter, who had founded the organization in two cold-water flats on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 22 years earlier, stepped down after several young men, some of them former residents of Covenant House, accused him of sexual abuse. He adamantly denied the accusations. An independent investigation commissioned by the organization found that although none of the sexual allegations could be proved, enough evidence existed, including evidence of financial irregularities, to warrant Father Ritter’s dismissal. No criminal charges were brought against him.
By then, with donations nearing $80 million a year, Covenant House was providing services to 28,000 homeless young people in 11 cities across the country and in Latin America. But within a year of Father Ritter’s resignation, donations had fallen to $42 million, forcing the reduction of services throughout the network. In New York City alone, an outreach center was closed and more than 100 beds in shelters were eliminated (including a floor for youths infected with the virus that causes AIDS), as were two of the three vans that took youngsters off the streets on frigid nights.
By the time Sister Mary Rose retired in 2003, donations had climbed to nearly $130 million and new shelters had been opened in 11 cities, among them Oakland, Calif.; Anchorage; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Managua, Nicaragua. Under her direction, the organization’s hot line (1-800-999-9999) became a 24-hour service. Covenant House now provides service in 26 cities and says it reaches over 50,000 youngsters a year.
Mr. Ryan, who called Sister Mary Rose “the Mother Teresa of street kids,” said: “Come hell or high water, she was determined to clean up Covenant House. From ashes, really, she pulled Covenant House forward.”
Even as a teenager, Mary Rose McGeady was serving children. Born in Hazleton, Pa., on June 28, 1928, she was one of three children of Joseph and Catherine McGeady. The family later moved to Washington, where Mary Rose attended Immaculate Conception Academy, operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. As a high school student she spent every Saturday at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum.
She joined the order in 1946. “I wanted to remain part of the community,” she said. “When I told my parents, my mother cried. My father told me to give it a try, and if I did not like it I could come home.”
Sister Mary Rose graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston with a degree in sociology in 1955 and six years later received a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Fordham University. By then she had already worked with homeless and disturbed children at a child-care center in Boston and served as director of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She was an associate director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn when she was chosen to lead Covenant House.
She is survived by a sister, Catherine Pendleton.
When she retired in 2003, Sister Mary Rose said, “I wish I could wave a wand and mend a child’s broken heart.”
Magically or not, her efforts helped Tracy Jones-Walker, who was a teenager wandering the streets of Brooklyn, in 1990. Her family, immigrants from Guyana — including 16 brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews — lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. After a fight with one of her sisters, said Ms. Jones-Walker, she “left the house and didn’t go back.” She ended up at the Covenant House crisis center on West 41st Street in Manhattan.
“Now I’m a senior analyst at a Wall Street firm,” she said in an interview. “Had it not been for Covenant House, I would have been lost.”
This article was originally posted in The New York Times.
Photo: Mary Rose McGeady in 1990. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times