As I sat by the bedside of Covenant House's former president, Sister Mary Rose McGeady, in her final days, I thought about all the homeless kids she had comforted in their time of need. In September, the very same month we marked our 40th year of helping kids across the Americas, we bid goodbye to our greatest leader and champion.
Sister Mary Rose McGeady, a member of the Daughters of Charity, died at the age of 84 on September 13, 2012. She died in her own bed in her beloved St. Louise House in Albany, NY, surrounded by family and friends, her community of religious sisters and a nursing staff whose love and devotion to Sister was beautiful to behold.
Sister Mary Rose was essentially our re-founder, a woman of faith who came to Covenant House in 1990 after its founder, Fr. Bruce Ritter, was forced to step down. Many people had lost confidence in Covenant House and it was up to Sister Mary Rose to clean up the agency, restore its reputation and save its mission from the ashes. She was the Mother Teresa of street children, a Holy tornado of determination and compassion. She lived and died every day with the successes and failures of our kids …and she saw God in the tired faces of beautiful, forgotten kids.
She began her ministry to abandoned young people while still a teenager herself. Working at the Home for Destitute Children as a 19-year-old, she would hear the cries of late-night loneliness from orphaned boys, and she spoke of how, when she went into their large dormitory to calm them, they would stop crying, only to start up again as soon as she left. She devoted her life to easing the pain of these children, and others like them. She counseled, encouraged, and prayed, and they were better off because of her steadfast, loving care.
In her 13 years as Covenant House president, Sister Mary Rose expanded the reach of our work dramatically. She established new crisis shelters, street outreach, and long-term residential houses for homeless youth in Canada, the United States and Nicaragua, doubling the number of children being served by Covenant House annually. Covenant House now reaches more than 57,000 children and youth a year in six countries.
She was a tireless advocate for homeless children, using her audiences with prime ministers and presidents to urge a focus on lifting children and homeless teenagers out of poverty. But her true gift was finding the goodness in the hearts of homeless children, and inspiring them to pursue their dreams.
I was privileged to hold Sister Mary Rose's hand during her final hours, and read her the many beautiful emails and phone messages we received from many of you, from our Covenant House family, from first ladies, provincials, mayors, religious leaders and, perhaps most touchingly, three formerly homeless boys she helped as a young sister. They saw her as their mother figure and remained devoted to her.
I thanked her for being love in the world to hundreds of thousands of street kids. I thanked her for being a mentor, a leader, and an irreplaceable friend.
She opened her eyes, looked right at me, and a beautiful, peaceful smile came to her face. A moment of pure grace. I brushed back her hair and dabbed a tear that fell from her left eye. One fell from mine too, and I wiped it away.
I asked Sister Mary Rose to pray for me, and for you. And then I promised her that together we will carry on this mission –the critical work of helping homeless, trafficked and exploited young people cross the bridge from despair to opportunity and hope.
Her smile became brighter, a twinkle came to her eyes. And then she lifted both arms from beneath the rose-colored sheets on her bed and with great difficulty -- but with her typical determination –gave all of us two enthusiastic thumbs up.
“That’s good, Kevin,”she said. “That’s good.”
We listened to music in her room overnight and we sang her home to God - singing along to Patty Griffin's "We Shall All Be Reunited" and Susan Boyle's "Amazing Grace."
Sister Mary Rose left this earth surrounded by photos and keepsakes from her kids at Covenant House. Beautiful paintings, doves carved lovingly out of wood …gifts from children who had nothing until our Covenant House movement showed them they were loved. Gifts from a generation of kids she nurtured and saved from the streets. Some of those kids’faces gazed down from frames on the wall next to her bed, next to a photo of her parents, looking down on her, calling her home.
Her Covenant House family was with her, too. In her room were many letters of love, support, and suggestions from friends on how to help more kids. She cherished those cards and letters and she cherished you. If you loved her kids, you were family, you were prayed for, you were precious in her eyes.
We have lost a great leader, a great champion for homeless kids, a no-nonsense advocate, a woman of determination, class, humor, and love.
Thousands of formerly homeless children are now happy and healthy adults today, with families and jobs and homes of their own, saved from despair. Because she was so good at dispensing love and respect, personally and through the charity she ran, thousands of children were able to thrive, and to learn what for many were extremely difficult skills -- how to trust, how to accept care and kindness, how to respect and value themselves.
There can be no greater legacy of love.