Like Pope Francis, sister puts poor at forefront

By Renae Bauer | Special to The Compass | July 1, 2015

‘I have a bent for the poor,’ says Sr. Carmody

GREEN BAY — Celebrities might get the enviable VIP treatment but sisters are privy to something far more precious: people’s lives.

Sr. Anne Margaret Carmody, left, chats with Vicky Lynn Lewandowski, a guest at Wellspring: A Place of Peace for Women in Green Bay. (Renae Bauer | Special to The Compass)
Sr. Anne Margaret Carmody, left, chats with Vicky Lynn Lewandowski, a guest at Wellspring: A Place of Peace for Women in Green Bay. (Renae Bauer | Special to The Compass)

That’s the experience of Sr. Anne Margaret Carmody. During her 51 years as a Sister of St. Francis of the Holy Cross (“Bay Settlement Sisters”) people have shared their hopes and dreams, their struggles and needs with her. It is a sacred journey.

Most months, Sr. Anne Margaret splits her time between four Green Bay ministries: two homeless shelters, a daytime drop-in center and an outreach center that offers vouchers for clothing and household items, and helps with rent and energy assistance. “I have a bent for the poor,” she says.

This “bent” probably comes from her parents who instilled in her a sense of equality for all people. “My parents treated everyone fairly,” she adds. All were welcomed to their Carlsville dairy farm in Door County where her dad, Paul, split his time between farming and pipe fitting for Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay.

Then there’s her mom, Ann, and maternal grandmother, Mary McCarty, who helped shape Sr. Anne Margaret.  Ann was a homemaker so committed to getting her nine children to church that she learned how to drive.  Grandmother Mary, who lived with the family while Sr. Anne Margaret was growing up, had a persuasive quality about her. Never once did she raise her voice to any of the children. Instead, grandmother “could get you to do things without you realizing it,” Sr. Anne Margaret says fondly.

This persuasive quality observed in her grandmother might have rubbed off on her. With a kind smile and an open-ended question, this school teacher-turned-social worker can lead a person to bear his or her soul.

She recounts: “One night while eating supper (at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter in Green Bay) a guest seemed more depressed than normal. He said there was no sense of living anymore so I asked him, ‘Do you have a plan?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m going to take a rope and go way deep into the woods where no one can find me.’”

With Sr. Ann Margaret’s help, the guest received intervention services and the tragedy was averted. Any concerns Sr. Anne Margaret had about potentially breaking trust were wiped away the next time she saw the guest. “He thanked me for doing what I did,” she said.

Sixth in a year-long series on men and women religious.
Eighth in a year-long series on men and women religious.

To be entrusted with someone else’s pain probably speaks to Sr. Anne Margaret’s background in social work and teaching, where she sees a lot of overlap.

“My educational background made me a good social worker,” she says. In both fields she looked for the good in people and tried to build their self-esteem.

“Also, as a teacher, I think one has to be creative in how one teaches and how one presents stuff. And I think that helped me not to rely just on myself, but to rely on different agencies and services in the community as a social worker,” adds Sr. Anne Margaret. “The other thing is not all kids catch on at the same time. The same is true in social work. With some people you have to try different avenues before there is change. One is called to trust deeply in letting the Spirit to lead self and to work among the people.”

She also recognizes the significance of her religious vows when it comes to interacting with people. “The value you have as a consecrated (vowed) person opens you up to see and accept others as instruments of God’s love and peace. When you do that, you see others as brothers and sisters in the family of God.”

Sr. Anne Margaret knows that seeing every segment of society as our “brothers and sisters” takes time and education. After all, she didn’t always understand homelessness.

“Before I got involved in homelessness, I would look at people with drug addictions and think if they hadn’t used drugs they wouldn’t be where they are. That’s where I came from. But it’s not true,” she says. “The truth is most of these people have mental health issues and they use either drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. One of the suggestions I would have is that we would educate ourselves as to why we have homelessness and to develop a compassion for people who are less fortunate.”

Another aspect she has learned while working with people in need is resiliency. “They have had a lot of hard knocks and yet they can be optimistic. Some are very hard core but when you sit down and talk with them they have a real gentleness. They have a sense of forgiveness.”

Sr. Anne Margaret and her clients seem to live her favorite scriptural passage, which is Micah 6:8, “This is what the Lord asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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