Nuns lead ascetic lives dedicated to Baltimore's poor

Jacques Kelly

August 05, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The Missionaries of Charity, the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa shortly after World War II, arrived here Easter Sunday to work with the poor, sick and dying. A week hadn't passed before the small religious community of four nuns took to some of the meaner streets in Baltimore. They knocked on doors at the Lexington Terrace public housing project, seeking to help residents. Soon, they were visiting AIDS patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The establishment of a new religious community in Baltimore, especially a branch of one of the world's fastest growing order of nuns, would usually be all over the newspapers and television. But these sisters turned down requests for publicity. They deferred to Mother Teresa, of Calcutta, India, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who is expected here today for the official opening of the convent and hospice.

The Missionaries of Charity's first home in Baltimore was at the convent attached to St. Alphonsus Church, Saratoga Street and Park Avenue. This downtown residence was to be only temporary. The nuns soon moved to their present home in the 800 block of N. Collington Ave., part of the St. Wenceslaus Church complex in a poor East Baltimore neighborhood. There, they have already established a small AIDS hospice, called the Gift of Hope, on the top floor for a small number of patients. They are helped by volunteers.

The sisters practice what in modern times might seem a radical form of Christianity. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They don't own anything. They are instructed to care for the poorest of the poor, wholeheartedly and for free. The sisters are not allowed to keep money on their person. They beg for their food and for money for their expenses then pray long and hard for their benefactors. When the have a pressing need, they ask St. Joseph for help.

Already, Baltimore has been generous. The nuns asked for donations from merchants at Lexington and Northeast markets and from others and the food arrived.

At the center of their lives is a mixture of Christian spiritual themes found in the East and the West -- 20th century activism blended with ancient, traditional spirituality.

The nuns rise long before dawn to pray. The rules of their order require they say a number of traditional Catholic prayers each day. On a warm morning, their voices carry through the open windows. They are singing the hymn, "Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above."

Each morning at 7, except Sunday, a priest presides at Mass for them in the convent's small chapel. On Sundays, the nuns walk around the corner to St. Wenceslaus for services. Thursday is set aside for prayer and contemplation.

The nuns don't read newspapers, watch television, or listen to radio. They don't own cars. They walk to all their local destinations.

The order's rules remind the nuns never to dispense cold, heartless charity. They are to be cheerful and joyful at all times, even as they face the terrible poverty and despair of those to whom they minister. When the nuns walk through through the city's streets, they often bow deeply to those who speak to them. Their thin, white cotton muslin sari-like habits are trimmed with azure stripes. They wear sandals on the street. In the convent, they go barefoot.

Mother Teresa has established convents in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco, among other U.S. cities. The order has become well known for its care of poor patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, many of whom are in their last days.

The nuns' East Baltimore convent is well situated. It is near Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the nuns spent much of the spring and summer as volunteers, observing the professional staff treat AIDS patients.

The nuns made a marked impression at the hospital. One nurse, who had visited the Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco, said, "You can't meet these ladies and not think they're a pleasure."

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