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Central California Life Magazine

Sister Mary: “At heart, I’m still a nurse”

Nov 19, 2014 03:48PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Sister Mary: “At heart, I’m still a nurse”

by Judy House Menezes

Photos by Judy House Menezes

“Hi, how are you today? How is school going?”

Sister Mary Clennon, C.S.C., hugs one of the regulars at the Holy Cross Center for Women in downtown Fresno. She asks about an expensive textbook the woman needs and cannot afford. There is no solution yet, but the woman is clearly appreciative of Sister Mary’s interest.

“OK, Sister Mary,” she responds. “Take care. Thank you, Sister.”

For 17 years, Sister Mary has been the director of the drop-in center as well as the Holy Cross Clinic located across the street in Poverello House. Both programs are under the umbrella of Saint Agnes Medical Center.

She is a Roman Catholic sister – although the terms are often used interchangeably, a nun is technically cloistered while a religious sister is not – with a calm, strong presence mixed with Midwestern affability. She is caring and encouraging but can also display a dry sense of humor to her staff.

“She throws little jokes out there. You say, ‘Is she serious?’” said Holy Cross operations manager Arecelia Pereschica, who serves as Sister Mary’s assistant.

The women who use the drop-in center, open six days a week, are low income and mostly from Fresno’s west side. Others are homeless, mentally ill and/or addicted, or abused. Some are college educated but refuse help.

“It tears your heart out,” Sister Mary said of the women. “Some you would not know are homeless. Some are appreciative.”

Outside, on the closed-off road between Holy Cross and Poverello House, people gather, some with their possessions in black garbage bags. A big yellow sign on the tall iron gates marks the entrance to the Holy Cross Center. It says “Safe Place.”

And it is.

“We just encourage women to take advantage of anything we have,” Sister Mary said.

The buildings of the center surround a grassy courtyard. Inside there are coffee and rolls and places to sit and watch TV. Women can sign up for showers and laundry, rest, get help filling out job applications and other forms, and attend GED and English as a Second Language classes.

In the middle of it all is Sister Mary.

At 78, having survived acute leukemia nine years ago (she had a stem cell transplant at UCSF), she is the guiding force at the Holy Cross Center and the clinic across the street. Every weekday after 7 a.m. Mass at the St. Paul Newman Center, Sister Mary makes the drive downtown.

“It’s a privilege to be in a community like this,” she said.

Though she is busy with administrative duties – budgeting, purchasing, and writing grant proposals – she enjoys talking with the women at Holy Cross.  

“I’ll see her through the window and she’ll stop and have a conversation with the women when they are out having their coffee,” her assistant Pereschica said.

Later, in a meeting, Sister Mary will bring up an idea suggested by one of the homeless women she stopped to chat with.

“She is probably the person with the most integrity I have ever known, an upstanding human being,” Pereschica said. “Very honest, absolutely committed to her spiritual life and the organization she runs.

“I never see Sister Mary waver.”

Irene Lopez came to the Holy Cross Center 24 years ago and credits Sister Mary with leading her to a better life. She starts to cry when she talks about it.

“When I came to this place, my life changed,” she said.

Lopez emigrated from Mexico and was pregnant and living in a garage when she first started going to the center. Her first son, Reuben, was born legally blind. She worked in the fields and took her children along.

“When they [labor contractors] say ‘no more kids in the field,’ I said ‘thank you, God,’” she said.

Holy Cross helped Lopez obtain her middle school degree, learn English and become a citizen. She volunteered at the center and was hired as a full-time employee 15 years ago. Now she manages the clothing room and housekeeping.

“She talked to me,” Lopez said of Sister Mary, adding that being treated kindly by the religious sister and others at the center made her “feel well.”

“Years before I feel like this,” she said, pinching her fingers together to indicate a sense of smallness, of being insignificant. “They made me feel strong.”

Sister Mary has helped people throughout her career. Service is what first attracted her to life as part of a religious order.

“Our whole life is in search of God, in ministering to others,” she said of being a religious sister. “I’ve been very fortunate with the ministries I’ve been asked to serve in. I’ve made a lot of friends along the way. I’ve had a wonderful life.”

From life on the farm to a life of service

Mary Clennon was born in Illinois and raised on a farm southwest of Chicago. She gradually discovered her vocation in high school; an older sister entered a convent first. In 1954, Mary left home to attend St. Mary’s College, the sister school to the University of Notre Dame and the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She took her vows in 1957 and graduated with a nursing degree. She worked in Indiana as a nurse and hospital assistant administrator before moving to work at a hospital in Southern California.

Sister Mary joined Saint Agnes in 1972 as a clinical nurse specialist and later became the hospital’s director of home health care. Then, in 1979, her religious order asked her to go to Thailand.

She was reluctant.

“In the U.S., really, if you wanted to go to Africa or Bangladesh, people sort of requested it. I never did. I guess I wasn’t that daring,” she said. But Catholic Relief Services needed nurses, so she made a three-month commitment, realized that was not long enough to make much of a difference, and ended up staying a year.

Sister Mary helped refugees who had fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where an estimated 2 million people died from disease or starvation or were brutally murdered. Resources were minimal and creativity was required to “get people nourished enough so they could walk,” she said. She also worked at the densely populated Khao-I-Dang camp where 60,000 people were crowded into one square mile and the final scene from the movie “The Killing Fields” was filmed.      

Sometimes she faced danger. She recalled accompanying U.N. workers in reuniting two children with their respective parents, a boy with his father who was thought to be dead, and a mother and daughter after the little girl had been separated from her grandparents after the fall of Phnom Penh. Both involved risky journeys.

The significance and emotion of both events is evident years later.

“As we drove into the camp near the medical center, she [the mother] saw her daughter. It was very touching,” said Sister Mary, choking back tears.

After the Israeli invasion in 1982, Sister Mary was sent to Lebanon where, with the airport bombed, the only way in and out of the country was by boat. She lived in the biblical towns of Tyre and Sidon, where she helped distribute food and medicine to Palestinian refugees.

“Those people lived in miserable conditions,” she recalled. 

When President-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated, the relief agency, fearful that the sisters would be cut off, asked them to move to Beirut.

Next was El Salvador for three months. Then she got a telex to go back to Lebanon.

“That’s what we did: emergency situations,” she said of the spur-of-the-moment assignments.

“As a Catholic agency, we served everybody. It didn’t make any difference who they were.”

Soon, her passport filled. “It opened up the world to me,” Sister Mary said of her travels. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing: to give and live, not as a tourist, but to go and live among the people.”

“It was a wonderful life,” she continued. At the same time, she acknowledged, “The living isn’t easy. You have to be able to carry what you need.”

While living and working abroad, Sister Mary gained an appreciation for different cultures and soon realized “everything we have in the U.S. is not perfect.

“Other cultures, their values and their families are very different, their community relationships,” she said. “People here sometimes don’t even know their neighbors.”

Sister Mary also worked for nine years in the New York office of Catholic Relief Services, leaving to travel to the Philippines and Ethiopia – the only communist country she has visited – during the famine in 1984. She went to Delhi, Portugal, Italy and Spain for meetings.

As an administrator in New York, she missed nursing, so Sister Mary did home health care in the older urban areas of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“Some of the nurses didn’t want to go down there. There might be a block where people only spoke Romanian,” she said.

Her last job before returning to Saint Agnes was at a long-term facility for the elderly near New Orleans.

All these experiences more than prepared Sister Mary for where she is today: in the nexus of one of the poorest areas in Fresno, if not California.

“There are all kinds of needs [here],” she said.

Back to Fresno and the city’s west side

In 1997, Sister Mary was asked to lead the Holy Cross Medical Clinic for men and women at the Poverello House. A year later, she took over the Holy Cross Center for Women when failing health required the director to step down.

The center, built in 1984 with a physical expansion in 2005, has grown under her leadership. When she took over in 1998, the center saw about 40 women a day. This past year, an average of 134 women and 20 children visited each day. About a third of those who seek help there are homeless.

“We are seeing more people that want to learn, that want to take advantage,” Sister Mary said.

She is particularly proud of the six- and seven-week summer programs for children and adolescents that focus on literacy and self-esteem, employment, cyber-bullying, distracted driving, domestic violence, tattoos and body piercing and gangs.

“To me, it’s worth every dime if we can save one child from that kind of life,” Sister Mary said.

This past summer, the youths took trips to San Juan Bautista, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Meux Home in Fresno. They learned about Japan, ballet, opera and Iran, and there was a speaker from the Congo.

For the women, the center offers a computer room, a classroom and a spacious, well-organized sewing and fabric room maintained by the Fiber Art Guild. “The Gathering Place” is a day care center where “kids are taken care of while Mom takes care of her needs,” Sister Mary said.

A “You Are Worthy” self-esteem program is held twice a year. Mass is celebrated at the center on Mother’s Day and Day of the Dead on Nov. 2, and there is a prayer service every two weeks. In a reflection room, where paintings of a black Madonna and a Latina Madonna hang on the walls, women sit quietly on chairs and on a donated like-new leather couch. 

Despite the religious symbolism, the Holy Cross Center is not about converting people. It offers women what they need, said Sister Mary.

“Her attitude is, ‘Let’s meet them where they’re at,’” explained Pereschica, the operations manager. “Our motto is ‘come as you are.”

Clearly, Sister Mary’s staff admires her.

“She is the kind of person … when she walks into a room, she commands respect,” Pereschica said. “[She has] an undying passion that does not diminish. I never see any burnout with her.”

Back in Sister Mary’s office, a beautiful, colorful hand-woven tapestry hangs on the wall behind her office desk. It’s expensive-looking. She has taken it with her every place she has lived.

“I love that story,” she said.

She was visiting the Portuguese town of Fátima and purchased it in an area known for inexpensive souvenirs. When she returned to her community, the sisters were curious where and how she found such a fine tapestry. She enjoyed telling them the price: $6.

She no longer does nursing, although she cannot help but ask if her help is needed when she visits the clinic.

“I usually get out of the way,” she said, then adding, “At heart, I’m still a nurse.”

She’s also someone who engenders both trust and respect in those who cross paths with her. One day, as she was sitting in her office, a client walked in unannounced. The woman quietly picked up a reflection book and left. A few days later, she came back and, without saying a word, returned the book.

“It was very interesting, kind of unusual. Obviously she trusted me,” Sister Mary said. “She didn’t expect me to intervene.”

Sister Mary’s hope for the Holy Cross Center is “that we continue to develop programs, that we don’t become stagnant,” she said. “We’ve been really blessed.”

She still has a passport, though she no longer travels abroad.

She has no plans to retire. In fact, she looks surprised when asked about it.

“When?” she said, without missing a beat. 


Judy House Menezes is a professor of journalism and adviser to the student newspaper at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.