Stories of Justice: S. Pat Donnelly


Pat Donnelly

Welcoming the Stranger

by Sister Mary Flick, CSJ,
justice ministry coordinator

Sister Pat Donnelly’s ministry as manager of tours and the gift shop at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is far from typical when one thinks of a justice ministry. But love of God and the dear neighbor is never far from Sister Pat’s mind.

While she is surrounded by the beauty of one of the largest mosaic collections in the Western Hemisphere, she is frequently reminded of how God reaches into our earthly lives.

“Every person who walks into this building is welcomed,” she says.  Her ministry of welcome extends especially to the people of the streets – whether they be tourists or the homeless and forgotten of St. Louis.

Her hospitality is frequently extended to people of different faiths, be they Methodists or Muslims, who call and ask if they are welcomed. Her answer is a resounding, “Yes!” There are confirmation classes, and students of art. There are busloads and carloads of tourists whom she greets.

“The people coming to the door are more important than anything else I do here,’” she says. The tourists are also people on the street, she says. “They don’t know the city, so I try to be as welcoming as I can.” Often, she shares the story of Louis IX, King of France, the patron of the city and namesake of its basilica.  

But some of her warmest welcomes are for those St. Louisans who are down on their luck. These are the ones who tell her their stories.

“If someone says he’s hungry, I give him a yogurt or a banana--the two things in my lunch,” Sister Pat says. But her earlier experience in social ministries have given her a sense of those looking for something else. “If they ask for money, sorry, there is none,” she tells them.

Sometimes, her ministry is, quite literally, to the neighbor – especially those living within walking distance of the Cathedral. Some, like Wayne, come to help straighten the church. “He just wants to talk – and I listen,” Sister Pat says. And there’s Bob, who stops by frequently. “I get worried when he doesn’t come.”

Or Roy, who, when he speaks, Sister Pat struggles to understand. “Sometimes I listen to him for 10 or 15 minutes and only catch a word or two,” she says. “I found out five years ago that his wife was killed in front of him and he was shot in the back of the head,” she says. “At one point, he gave me his wedding photo. He was afraid something would happen to it.” Several weeks later when Roy returned, Sister Pat assured him, “Here it is. I took care of it for you.”

“Each day is different,” she says. In the summer months, she greets hundreds of walk-ins, especially when the baseball Cardinals are in town. But there are also the family members of patients at nearby Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “There was a little boy from North Dakota who was a patient for six months,” Sister Pat recalls. “His mother would be by here on a regular basis. And people from their parish would come to St. Louis to visit.”

Hers, too, is a ministry to the sick. “Then someone comes in with no hair or in a wheelchair, I get a St. Peregrine coin from the gift shop and give it to them and tell them, ‘Hold onto this. He’s the guy to pray to because he’ll take your prayer right to Jesus.”

Ministering to the people of the streets at one of the nation’s largest cathedrals was not among her ministerial aspirations. In fact, her earliest life plans included teaching junior high math – even though her first teaching assignment was first grade at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raytown, Missouri. After making vows, she taught first grade at St. Viator’s Grade School in Chicago. Three years later, that initial desire was met when she was assigned to teach fifth through eighth grade math at Nativity Grade School in Chicago.

But the ministry that probably most shaped her life was her eight years at Carondelet Child Care Center in Chicago, working with physically and sexually abused five- to 14-year-olds. She lived on the property and was on call, 24/7. She remembers one evening being called to intervene between two boys who were arm wrestling. One of the boys was angry that Sister Pat had come. “I’ll take you on,” she told him. With residual pride she still tells, “And I beat him! Before then, it took two men to hold him down when he was angry. But thereafter, whenever I’d enter the room, he’d stop fighting. He knew I could beat him. And the others knew that if I could beat him, I could beat anyone!”

As she reflects on her time with the children at the center, Sister Pat still remembers the day Jimmy arrived. His social worker had given him the wrong medication. “I sat up with him all night,” she recalls, extending to him a compassionate, listening presence. “He had come from Alton to Chicago so his family was far away,” Sister Pat recalls. “I told him stories. I told him I was away from my family, so I understood.” And she encouraged him, “You have to make new friends and be a part of this group.’”

It was that advice she also gave herself. As a means of coping with this stressful work, a psychiatrist had suggested to the group of child care workers that they do something they enjoyed to take them away from the center. “I was taking computer classes.” Sister Pat admits, “I am a geek.”

 As her eight years at the child care center drew to a close, she got into educational computing, landing in Southern California. But she missed the changing seasons, and returned to St. Louis and the youngest of students, working at Linda Vista Montessori School.

 Not long after, she found herself at St. Joseph’s Academy, serving as director of buildings, maintenance and computers. She remembers pulling plenty of wire at the advent of the computer age. Seven years later, she was looking for work again, and landed at the Cathedral, getting the gift shop on a computer system, doing accounting and ordering souvenirs. It’s important work for any organization. But Sister Pat is more than the computer geek she was when she was hired.

“I have an eye on the world, here in my hometown,” Sister Pat says. “My job is ordering supplies for the gift shop and all the accounting that goes with it, along with scheduling tour guides and facilitating tours. But my ministry is to be with everyone who enters here. It is, truly, a ministry to the neighbor.”

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