Feisty nun fights a losing war on poverty

December 09, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SALISBURY -- When she came 14 years ago, the local officials told her there were no poor people here.

Now, three days a week, the poor snake in a ragged line of misery up to the entrance of Joseph House, the place Sister Mary Elizabeth Gintling founded to help them.

They come from Salisbury and from deep in the rural countryside. They walk in or drive battered old jalopies or hitch rides. to get here. Joseph House can help them, they believe. They need money to pay the overdue rent. Or groceries to feed hungry children. Or just the hot lunch served by one of the local churches.

They press up against the entrance of the converted storage building in a siege of supplication. The sisters and their volunteers inside must open the door guardedly and allow a few to squeeze in at a time, for fear of being overrun.

"As soon as the poor hear about you, you're finished. You're overwhelmed," sighed Sister Mary Elizabeth. The 75-year-old Roman Catholic nun runs a program that includes five nuns and a hundred volunteers, passes out $200,000 to $300,000 a year in money and distributes as much again in donated food. And still it is swamped by poverty.

The architect of this effort is a steamroller in a nun's habit, a gray-haired paladin for the poor. Sister Mary Elizabeth, after a half-century of working with the needy, still rages at the injustice she sees and laughs at herself while doing it.

"I hate injustice. Hardship is nothing. If only the poor would know, they are so much better off than the rich," said the woman who fights so fiercely for the poor -- and so gleefully pricks the rich.

"There's no sense to this," she says of her endless task. Then she adds, with a sudden delighted cackle: "We're all so crazy. Eh! I'll be glad to die."

"Mae" Gintling, daughter of a Baltimore mechanic, was a nursing nun for 21 years. She left her order at age 50 to work with the poor in the ghettos of Baltimore, establishing Joseph House there.

A decade later, she again put on her habit. In partnership with a 22-year-old volunteer, Patricia Guidera, they established an order called the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary and set out to minister to the poor of the Eastern Shore. Joseph House in Salisbury resulted.

The need is there. In 1980, the last year for which state-by-state data are available, Maryland's 11 percent rural poverty rate was higher than the state's 9.7 percent metropolitan poverty rate. Of the 51,000 rural poor in the state, 69 percent lived on the Eastern Shore. The counties nearest Joseph House, Wicomico, Somerset, Worcester and Dorchester, consistently rank among the poorest in the state.

Tuesday through Thursday, the nuns and volunteer helpers give out more than 500 bags of groceries to poor people who have trouble feeding their families. Thirteen local churches alternate serving nearly 100 hot lunches each day.

And in three hours on those days, 35 or 40 poor people crowd in to appeal for money to meet their needs. The staff interviews them and checks on rent bills and utility cut-off notices. On any day, the sisters may give out $3,000 to $4,000. It is all from contributions. They have no government funds.

Sister Mary Elizabeth has no delusions about those at her doorstep. She scolds and admonishes them for the rashly spent dollar or the squandered job opportunity. But she insists, to the ,, skepticism of her co-workers, that "I'm an incredible softy. I can't say no."

Her deeper anger is at the circumstances that keep those trying to climb out of poverty from succeeding. The trap is deliberately set by some employers, she said.

"You have companies that are trying to keep people poor," she said. "They are hiring at the same time they are firing. They are firing when the employee is getting near the point where they would have to pay him benefits or a higher salary."

She offers her views with some trepidation. Each time she criticizes the businessmen, she loses contributions, she said. Donations from two of the largest local employers, Perdue poultry and Campbell's Soup, keep her food pantry well-stocked for the needy.

But she sees mothers and husbands go day after day to grueling jobs, only to find that their paycheck is less than they could get on welfare, she said.

She sees the mechanical routine of assembly-line jobs wreck the arms of workers, who desperately keep on working until they can longer lift their children at home, she said.

She sees outrageous rents, and company-store fees for transportation and clothing. So she speaks out.

"There's a lot of injustice," she said. "Here are companies that don't care. When the employees can't work, they just get another person.

"You can only help people who want to be helped," said Sister Mary Elizabeth. "But when you see a person who tries, it's really sad when they don't get a break."

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