Nun, laywoman aiding Philadelphia’s homeless to get 2011 Laetare Medal

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – A Mercy nun and a laywoman who co-founded a program that is widely credited for reducing Philadelphia’s homeless population by half have been named the winners of the 2011 Laetare Medal given by the University of Notre Dame.

The award, announced April 3, will be presented during the university’s 166th commencement ceremony May 22 to Mercy Sister Mary Scullion and Joan McConnon, co-founders of Project HOME.

“In their work for the homeless of Philadelphia, Sister Scullion and Joan McConnon have splendidly answered the Gospel summons to brotherly love,” said Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, in announcing the award winners.

“Serving the unsheltered Lord on the streets of their hometown, they have provided an example for others to serve likewise in cities worldwide,” he added.

The two Philadelphia natives founded Project HOME, an acronym for Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care and Education, in 1989, first providing emergency shelter for 50 homeless men and eventually establishing more permanent supportive residences for chronically homeless men and women.

The project now includes 480 units of housing and two businesses that provide employment to formerly homeless people. Ninety-five percent of the homeless people participating in its programs have not returned to the streets.

Sister Mary, the daughter of Irish immigrants, is executive director of Project HOME. A member of the Sisters of Mercy since 1976, she holds a master’s degree in social work from Temple University.

McConnon, associate executive director and chief financial officer of Project HOME, earned a master’s degree in taxation from Drexel University in 1989. She worked for six years as an accountant at GTE and Corning Glass before returning to Philadelphia to work with the homeless.

In 2009 Time magazine named Sister Mary to its annual list of “the 100 most influential people.” Time called her “Philadelphia’s Mother Teresa.”

A profile on her that year in The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia’s archdiocesan newspaper, described her as “a woman of seemingly boundless energy.” It said she usually found time for a run through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park a couple of times each week.

But most of her energy was spent in mission, the paper said. “The question for Sister Mary is what is God’s vision for the world and what can be done to make it happen, through his grace, prayer, Eucharist and community.”

The Laetare Medal is awarded annually at Notre Dame to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” It is announced each year on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent on the liturgical calendar.

Among the 133 previous recipients of the Laetare Medal are President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, labor priest Monsignor George G. Higgins and jazz composer Dave Brubeck.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.