By John Rice
When Sister Marie Valerie was growing up in the French countryside, she didn't see poverty and homelessness. Now, as a member of the order Fraternite Notre Dame, she supervises a ministry at 502 N. Central Avenue in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where she is surrounded by the poor and displaced. For 19 years, these nuns from France have worked tirelessly to help the downtrodden.
They have received a great deal of help from the near west suburbs, including Forest Park. Local grocers give them food and local churches make donations. More importantly, people from this area have volunteered to help distribute food, make sandwiches and provide other necessities.
The nuns are known for the delicious pastries they prepare and sell at farmers markets, but I met Sister Valerie at the Forest Park fireworks. She heard we had the best in the area and was not disappointed. She invited me to visit their ministry. She belongs to an order that was founded in France by Bishop Jean-Marie in 1977. They follow his teachings on serving the poor.
Her mother was a very devout Catholic, who read to her from an illustrated Lives of the Saints. Sister's favorite was "The Little Flower," a Carmelite nun, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. She once said, "I only love simplicity. I have a horror of pretense."
She shares these sentiments, joining the order in 1986, partly because they wear a traditional habit. She did not want to be a "modern" nun in skirt and blouse. She deflects personal attention.
Her order has targeted the poor in major American cities. They started in New York and spread to Chicago in 1997. They moved to their present location in 2000. They received a donation to purchase the former Gammon United Methodist Church. It was built in 1899 and is considered an architectural treasure.
It was not a treasure when they bought it. The church was a mess. They filled multiple dumpsters with garbage. They replaced floors, walls and ceilings. The result is a clean well-kept building in a struggling community. They not only serve the people who come to the church, they take to the streets to feed the homeless.
Their ministries include a daily soup kitchen and weekly food pantry. They visit hospitals and Cook County Jail. They also operate an after-school program for children ages 4-14. Their food pantry stayed open during the polar vortex, when even schools shut down.
"We open the door no matter what," Sister said.
She works with a small team of nuns and volunteers. They serve soup for about 150. They distribute boxes of food to the people who wait in line on Wednesdays. She said they have the same people standing in line week after week, but if someone finds a job, they come back to thank the sisters.
The nuns are especially busy during the holidays. They host a Christmas party outdoors for the homeless. They give them hats, scarves, gloves and sleeping bags. They also have a party for seniors, distributing soap, towels and other basics. At their Christmas party for students, they give out 1,500 toys to kids in the neighborhood.
All of these services are supported by donations. They also need financial donations because operating an aging church is very expensive. Finally, they need volunteers from neighboring communities to step up. One Forest Park woman I know made sandwiches there every Monday with her church group.
I encourage others to volunteer at Fraternite Notre Dame. Just call Sister Valerie at 773-261-0101. She always answers her phone.