success stories

Yeah, yeah sisterhood

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist, 6/18/2002

It got to the point one recent morning when the onslaught of negative news was so much that I found myself at the door of 515 Blue Hill Avenue in the heart of Dorchester on a near-desperate search for grace. Bishops have resigned. The Vatican operates from another planet. Our own cardinal engenders the respect of a carnival huckster, though with none of the charm. So there I was in the tranquil, sun-splashed lobby of the Mother Caroline Academy and Education Center, being greeted by an unfailingly pleasant woman by the name of Sister Mary Dooley.

She's in her early 60s, Sister Mary, with flaxen hair, a ready smile, and an aura that she's never had a bad day in her entire blessed life. Her devotion to humanity has taken her from the depths of Liberia to the borough of Brooklyn to, quite thankfully, the neighborhoods of Boston. Here, she gives the greatest gift of all: education.

She takes 60 girls from struggling families and provides them a lift that no amount of money could ever buy. She enrolls them in her academy. She demands a lot and gives even more in return. Most of the girls aren't even Catholic. Sister Mary, along with Sister Frances Butler, founded the school nine years ago for girls in grades 5 through 8. They convinced Mayor Menino to give them an abandoned city welfare office and raised millions to rebuild it, never taking so much as a dime from the Boston Archdiocese.

A couple of years after they opened, they raised millions more to expand it. ''There's the church making a difference in people's lives,'' Menino now says. These days, every corner and crevice of the place glows with success, whether it be the sprawling computer labs, the library stocked floor to ceiling with books, or the gym that rivals that of any private school devoted to the Volvo set.

The girls arrive by 8 every morning and aren't dismissed until 5. Nearly half the school returns for evening study from 7 to 9. They're taught by a group of seven instructors, most of whom work for $200 a month and live for free on the top floor. The impact is almost unimaginable. The graduates, the majority of whom come from single-parent homes of severely limited means, have headed off to such stellar high schools as Newton Country Day, Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, and Newman Prep, always on scholarship. Two girls have already found their way to Bowdoin, another to Cornell, and others to places like Holy Cross. A full-time staffer keeps tabs on them all.

Never satisfied, the nuns opened an adult education center that teaches several hundred area residents - often the parents of students - English, computer training, and interview skills. An after-school program takes in another 24 boys and girls. Again, there's no archdiocese money involved. Instead, Sisters Mary and Frances raise funds the old-fashioned way. They shake people down. They convince donors big and small of the benevolence of their ways. And those donors, in turn, not only give money, some even teach classes. Outside, men idly pass the time on a street corner, and grated storefronts exude a sense of hopelessness that infiltrates too many young lives.

Inside, in a pristine conference room, Sister Mary refuses to surrender, not to poverty, and certainly not to the grotesque headlines involving priests, their prey, and the bishops who looked the other way. ''I'm pained by what's happened,'' she says of the ongoing scandal. ''I'm angry that it's been allowed to come to what it is. But I know so many people in the church that are good nuns, good priests, good laity - Catholics in the best sense of the word giving to those in need.''

You look at Cardinal Law and so many of his cohorts who were gathered in Dallas last week and wonder what went wrong. You meet Sister Mary and so many others like her and realize all that is still right.

Brian McGrory can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com. This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2002.

Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.