People love Sister Rosemary Connelly for a variety of reasons. For founding Misericordia, the city’s pre-eminent home for those with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. For being its fierce advocate, fundraiser, cheerleader. For the act of singular bravery that helped create the whole thing 45 years ago.
Her original mission was to care for disabled foundlings who were dumped by their distraught mothers on the doorsteps of Catholic churches. Then, when they turned 6, she was to hand them over to state care.
When Sister Rosemary saw the kind of state-run hellholes she was expected to deliver her charges into, she refused. She disobeyed. She demanded the archdiocese do something, and it shrugged and gave her the newly shuttered Angel Guardian Orphanage, which became the 31-acre Misericordia home. After nearly 40 years of her stewardship, the place has the feel of a high-end golf resort without golf, or a Wisconsin resort hotel. Imagine The American Club in Kohler if every guest had a disability.
But that isn’t why I like her.
I like her because she isn’t afraid to talk. Sister Rosemary will tell you what’s on her mind.
And no, not the phrase she repeats with such delight, quoting our mayor, “Sister, you scare me …” then a word with more sting spelled in a newspaper than spelled aloud, so let’s just say it’s eight letters long, begins, “S-H-I” and ends “L-E-S-S.”
Not that line. But other things she says. If the state isn’t paying its bill on time, as it often doesn’t, she tells you. If one-size-fits-all activists clamor against Misericordia because it doesn’t mesh with their fantasy that every disabled person would be happier living alone in an apartment, she says so.
She said something Tuesday before 400 people at a fundraising lunch that I’ve never heard spoken before, never mind by a nun.
And no, it wasn’t individuals have “not just a right to life, but to a life worth living,” a tossed-off line of hers with enough power to make the whole Right to Life movement a lot more palatable to a lot more people, though of course that would shift their focus from shaming women to helping children, and they don’t seem eager to consider it.
It wasn’t that.
Sister Rosemary was telling a story about a mother who called her in despair. “She was crying,” Connelly recalled. “She said, ‘I’m a single mother. I have a 15-year-old boy who can do nothing for himself, and he’s too heavy for me to lift. The only place I’ll ever bring him to is Misericordia.’ And I said, ‘I’m so, so sorry, we haven’t any room.’ ”
Misericordia has a 600-person waiting list. The mother said, “Please, just see him.”
“And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see him,’ ” Connelly said. “He becomes real then. It becomes dangerous.” A tough cookie, she is, when need be. But of course she saw him.
“It was heartbreaking,” she told the crowd. “She could no longer lift him. She was worrying about his future. She didn’t know what she was going to do. And I very piously told her that he was God’s child, even before hers, and she had to trust.”
The standard, sorry-not-my-table shrug so many give to those in need. But it didn’t sit well with Connelly, even as she said it. “And I saw her wheel this boy down the hall, going back to a very depressing situation, and I said to myself: ‘Who’s God but us? If we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.’ ”
“Who’s God but us?” Who’s God but us! Pardon me, sister, but daaaamn! Do you know how many people invoke God to justify their indifference? Their harshness? Their evil acts? Their dismissal of the very people they should most open their hearts to? And here’s Sister Rosemary, trying out the platitudes, finding them hollow and basically looking up at God, giving him the stink-eye and saying, “OK then, Mr. Lord of the Universe, if you’re going to fail this boy, I guess we’ll have to do your job for you.”
Not that she just waved the boy to the front of the line. That wouldn’t be fair either.
“It took two years to raise the money and build the house,” she said, “but that boy has been here 15 years now.”
Who’s God but us?! That’s edgy stuff, Sister, practically sacrilege. And a recipe for making faith more palatable to those who wonder what it’s all for. For inspiring you to do what you should do anyway. Less worshipping the ineffable and more trying to pick up a few of the balls that Mr. Big keeps dropping. It isn’t just a Catholic obligation. The Jews have a term for it: tikkun olam. Repair the world. It just helps to have someone like Sister Rosemary remind you.
Footnote: After Sister Rosemary finished, Amy Rule, the mayor’s wife, also spoke, her first public utterance as Chicago’s first lady.