Nun devoted her life to helping homeless

Founding director of downtown's Our Daily Bread treated the needy to hot meals with dignity, respect

Sister Josanna 1944 - 2005

October 14, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

Sister Josanna knew, first-hand, the city's appetite for a safe place for people to get off the mean streets, sit down and enjoy a free, hot lunch - a place where all would be treated as dignified guests, not rescue mission charity cases.

Some 24 years ago, Sister Josanna raised the standards for a seven-day-a-week soup kitchen on a highly visible downtown corner. It angered some neighbors, but brought the homeless, the hungry and lonely urban dwellers into obvious public view. It even attracted a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Joann Margaret Abromaitis, widely known as Sister Josanna and the founding director of Our Daily Bread, died of cancer yesterday at her Cockeysville home. She was 61.

Sister Josanna, powered by her will to serve others, drafted a volunteer army of financial donors and cooks and servers who, like her, wanted to do good deeds.

"The clothes she wore smelled like the tuna casserole she served," said Greg Conderacci, a former Catholic Charities community services director. "She was a magnet. It was hard to say `no' to Josanna. She had such humility. She created a symbol of service to the homeless."

Our Daily Bread opened during the Reagan administration, a time of media accounts of rifts in the social safety net. It put under a roof what had been the charitable acts for years of the nuns who cooked for priests staffing the Basilica of the Assumption, who distributed free wax paper-wrapped sandwiches to hungry men who knocked at a basement kitchen door off Charles Street.

Sister Josanna put a new spin on the old sandwich line, even dignity.

"Everyone was happy with the homeless as long as they were invisible," said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of downtown's St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church. "Our Daily Bread had the effect of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable."

Sister Josanna, with the backing and funding of the Baltimore Archdiocese's Catholic Charities, moved the sandwich line into a West Franklin Street rowhouse and founded what was essentially a clean, well-lit restaurant where all who entered were served a hot, free meal.

Former colleagues said it was loosely based upon a similar kitchen in Washington, called So Others Might Eat. Critics said she was bringing skid row to the lower Mount Vernon neighborhood, but the venture caught on.

"People simply will be fed," she said in a 1981 Sun interview.

"At a time in the politics of America when homelessness was front and center, she was a good interview," said her brother, attorney Michael J. Abromaitis of Baltimore. "She was for real."

Our Daily Bread soon was serving meals to about 800 people a day, many of them homeless, drawing in its operations from an ecumenical corps of some 3,000 volunteers from 50 churches, synagogues, schools and businesses.

"She was just a beautiful person," said George F. Thompson, a 90-year-old South Baltimore resident who began volunteering when Sister Josanna opened its doors in the spring of 1981. "She was for the people, and everyone who came through her door was treated with dignity and respect."

Born in Baltimore and raised on Park Avenue in Bolton Hill, Sister Josanna was a 1962 graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School and entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She earned a bachelor's degree in English at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and a master's in liberal arts from the Johns Hopkins University.

She received the name Sister Josanna - a name that stuck even after she left the religious order in 1989.

A close friend, Sister Patricia Murphy, also a member of the School Sisters order, recalled yesterday that as a young woman Sister Josanna had volunteered at what was then Rosewood State Hospital and at the old East Baltimore nursing home of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

"She was a deeply spiritual person who had a heart for people who were poor," Sister Patricia said.

Sister Josanna taught at her order's school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and was an English and drama teacher and department chairwoman from 1969 to 1978 at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson.

"She was an inspiring teacher, sensitive and intuitive," said Peggy Otenasek, whose daughters Sister Josanna taught. "She had the ability to pick out a child who needed some extra TLC."

She was tapped by the archdiocese to start Our Daily Bread after receiving a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland in 1980.

"There was a quiet humility to her, for all the good she accomplished at Our Daily Bread," said Carol Pacione, a friend who worked with her. "She was a woman who was confident in her person and in her faith. She was kind and intelligent, and she used both of those attributes to the advantage of others."

After getting Our Daily Bread established, she started an East Baltimore day and evening shelter for men called Christopher Place and then worked in the Catholic Charities development office.

From 1989 to 1999, she worked at Gallagher Services in Timonium, and started and directed its adult day care program for 100 adults with severe mental and developmental disabilities.

She then directed a volunteer services program at the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity in Timonium, and at her death was director of residents' life at the Oak Crest Village retirement community in Parkville.

"It was amazing the impact she had on our organization in the year and a half she worked here," said Mark Erickson, chief strategy officer with Erickson Retirement Communities.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at her order's Villa Assumpta Chapel, 6401 North Charles St.

She is also survived by another brother, Joseph C. Abromaitis of Bel Air; a nephew, Mark Abromaitis of St. Mary's City; and a niece, Anne A. Bailey of Baltimore.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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