Growing up in Southwest Philadelphia was like living on a ship. The bow was Most Blessed Sacrament Church and School. This parish provided us and the city with some of the best athletes of our time, for both college and pro basketball. It is located at 56th Street, between Chester Avenue and Kingsessing Avenue. And the stern was the Little Sisters of the Poor Home, which is located between 53rd and 54th Street, between Kingsessing Avenue and Chester Avenue. This ship could have been called the ‘S.S. Saratoga’, because all of our phone numbers began with SA... like in the jingle for the ad for ‘Saratoga 2-2900.’ Does anyone remember what ad this phone number represented... I don’t?
In the middle of the ship was Mitchell school yard, which was a public school. This school yard was a second home for a lot of us, especially the boys, and what a blessing it was for our mothers too. It had something for all of us... can ball, box ball, stick ball, hop scotch, etc., and the best thing of all was that you didn’t have to be a good athlete to join in the games. It was also a great place to meet a person that matched your personality; it was like our own eHarmony.com. At the dances, we were even willing to share our boyfriends and girlfriends for a dance; it just came naturally, because the boys didn’t know how to dance anyway. This ship was full of givers, and some of them would give you their last cent, but we all felt that we were in the same boat. Maybe someone had a basketball, or a football, or a softball, or a glove, that we needed in order to play our day away, or someone had a soda they were willing to share. How many times did we ask for a swig, then wipe off the top of the bottle with our dirty hand, and then down the hatch it went, ready for the next guy to take a swig. And last but not least, that is where we learned to play pinochle, which many of us still play today.
The IHM Sisters at Most Blessed Sacrament School gave us our life jackets in faith, hope, charity, and of course, discipline. And sometimes they gave out a little bit more of the discipline if they thought you needed it, in order to keep our ship afloat. But over the years the ship got old, and most of us have abandoned her, but not so for the Little Sisters of the Poor, they are still there giving of themselves, and to those who need it the most... the poor! Our family lived only a half block from the home, so we went by the home almost every day, either on our way to get the #13 trolley car, or to go to Edges Drug Store to make a phone call, because many of us didn’t have a phone in our home, or to Tip O’Leary’s Store, which we loved because they sold everything there... cheap!!! But there was one thing everyone knew, and that was you would never jump up or over the wall surrounding the home, as tempting as it was to see what was on the other side, because as the song says, they “had the meanest junk yard dog in town.” Some kids would rather stay and play in Mitchell schoolyard, while others would volunteer in the home’s kitchen or laundry room, or help assist the Little Sisters in taking care of the Residents, and some of the boys would serve as altar boys at Mass. But I would bet none of them left without something good to eat, for the Little Sisters’ hospitality is the best. And many vocations blossomed at that time, mostly because of kids being around the Little Sisters while doing volunteer work for them.
I can remember the Little Sisters coming around in a black truck going door to door begging not for themselves, but for the people in their care, and they all seemed to be so little. I guess God wants to show us “how little people can do big things”... like not only giving the poor a place to live, but making their new home full of love and compassion. Today, the Little Sisters go to the South Philadelphia Food Market to beg for food from the vendors there, and they have always been very generous to the Little Sisters when they came, even in times of depressions, recessions, calm waters, or exuberant times. So many of the food vendors have been so giving for such a long time, that we wonder how we could live without them.
If you are lucky enough to know someone in their care, please stop in and say hello, for you will find in their home one of the most beautiful environments that one could ever hope to be living in. From the time you walk in the front door, you can feel the warmth of the employees, or see a volunteer giving a helping hand to a Resident, or just walk down the hall, and you will see the shiny floor smiling back at you. But best of all is knowing that the Little Sisters are not there because they have to be, but because this is their whole life, doing what God has called them to do 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just think about how hard it is to take care of one person, be it your mother or father for 24 hours a day, let alone taking care of 100 of your loved ones. In 1839, their foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, took in a blind woman who had no place to live, and also gave the woman her own bed, so this became the start of the Little Sisters of the Poor. And this is how the Little Sisters treat every Resident... as if the person was their own mother or father!
I remember one day I was making a visit at the home when Sister Winefrid stopped me and said, “Oh, Mr. Dengler, would you do me a favor?” I don’t remember why I couldn’t help her, but I know it was a small matter. So I said to Sister that I was sorry, but I couldn’t help her. Well, with the saddest eyes and a sincere holy heart, her head went down, then she said, “Oh, I feel so sorry you can’t help us.” She then paused for a second, and then she looked up, and with such a beautiful smile, she said, “Don’t worry, I will pray for you, so that the next time you get the opportunity to help, God will give you the graces you need to help.” I was speechless! Here Sister was feeling sorry for me that I was not receiving the graces from God needed to help them. Well, that was a day I’ll never forget!
About 20 years ago, Mother Mary Vincent started an advisory board to help with a lot of red ink issues. The home was a million dollars in debt and going south, but the help of so many good people, and with the help of several fund raising events (which are still held each year), in a couple of years they were able to get out of debt, which helps keeps the ship afloat. Two of my favorite events are the Irish Night held in March at Cardinal O’Hara High School and the Garden Party. If you should go to the show, there is a good chance you will run into some of your old neighbors, or see friends you knew from the Shamrock Club from many years ago. But my favorite event is the Garden Party Car Raffle held in September on the grounds of the Holy Family Home. For this event, Marie and I get together with about 30 of our oldest and closest friends, who come faithfully every year to this event to support the Little Sisters. Most of them are themselves from the old neighborhood (MBS); so I’m sure that seeing the home and the neighborhood again, brings back many fond memories for them too. Also, some of them help the Little Sisters that day by volunteering to help set things up for the Garden Party, and then bartending for the party. What a pleasure it is to see so many of my friends on this day working the bar from the inside, instead of the outside!! Our crowd has such a good time together at this event, that one of our guy’s daughter planned her September wedding date around this event because she knew none of us would want to miss the Garden Party... now that says it all!! Where can you go for $100 (price of a ticket) for two people, have a cocktail party with good music, lots of shrimp, cheeses, etc., then a full course dinner with different desserts. While you are waiting for your name to be picked for your new car, you are sitting under a large open air tent that fills the beautiful gardens of the home. But if your name is not picked for the new car or one of the many other prizes, you are still a winner, because you are helping the Little Sisters of the Poor. So when you are driving home in your old car, don’t be surprised if it feels like new, because you will be filled with the spirit of St. Jeanne Jugan!
I have been on many boats in my life, but this is the only one my wife Marie would sail with me, be it in a storm of changing course to make a meeting, or going through bad neighborhoods to get to a peaceful, loving, safe port, knowing that when we leave the port, we will have our sails filled with the beautiful Spirit-filled wind of St. Jeanne Jugan to help us sail through life’s journey. May God continue to bestow his blessings on the Little Sisters of the Poor, for all the love and care they give our Residents around the world!
“What happiness for us, to be a Little Sister of the Poor!”
“Making the poor happy is everything...”
–St. Jeanne Jugan