Sister Therese O’Sullivan for 33 years lived life in the eye of a hurricane. So she isn’t quite sure how to spend retirement.
As head of the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in the Woodlawn neighborhood, she helped thousands of women kick drugs and alcohol.
It was a nearly 24-hour gig.
She lived with her charges — each must stay for one year — in an old brick Catholic school house turned dormitory and recovery center in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
“I’ll need some time to decompress,” she said this week.
Between the daily epiphanies and implosions of recovering addicts, O’Sullivan oversaw two this-is-happening-now births, survived an attack by a mentally unsound woman who tried to choke the life out of her — another nun bopped the woman on the chin — and gathered donations with the import of a castaway foraging for firewood.
“You just deal with it,” she said. “That’s the best thing you can do. Instead of worrying and saying, ‘Why me? Why me? What’s this all about?’ Just do the best you can do.”
Tuesday was a nice day for O’Sullivan. She turned 78 and a few women she helped called to say happy birthday.
One well-wisher came to O’Sullivan years ago, an alcoholic with four kids.
“She’s what you call a ‘bad alcoholic’ and she had a slip, and by all rights she should have been out, but she had these four little kids and I just couldn’t do it,” said O’Sullivan, noting that children under a certain age can stay at the recovery center, too.
“And we worked with her and worked with her. She was toothless when she came here. You’d be surprised at how many addicts lose their teeth,” said O’Sullivan, adding that fixing teeth is a priority in the recovery process.
“When she got new teeth she was the most beautiful woman, just strikingly beautiful. And now two of her kids are in college and a third one graduated already. All she kept saying was ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ I told her, ‘You don’t have to thank me. You did what you had to do.’ ”
O’Sullivan grew up in the Grand Crossing neighborhood, one of eight siblings. One of her brothers is a priest in South America.
After entering a convent at age 18, O’Sullivan, who stands just over 4 feet, 10 inches, became a first-grade teacher at a South Side Catholic school and was perfectly happy until her boss — known as the mother general — nudged her from her comfort zone.
“I was requested by mother general at that time to broaden my horizons,” she said.
In 1983, she opened a homeless shelter near 63rd and Woodlawn with businesswoman-turned-nun Connie Driscoll.
“We opened as a shelter for women and children, not for recovery, but we discovered we needed to go further,” she said.
A few years later, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gave O’Sullivan the keys to the old schoolhouse and the pieces fell into place.
“We were driven and saw the need,” she said. “I got the spirit and courage to do it. I felt like I was doing God’s will.”
She told all the women who came through the same thing: “I don’t care what you ever tell me, as long as you don’t lie to me.”
“And that was an awful lot for them because that was kind of their way of life,” she said.
O’Sullivan estimates about 4,000 women have lived in the House of Hope.
“About 80 percent stayed clean,” she said. “I’m most proud of being part of the miracle of the women who make it through our program and continue to be successful in their life when they leave.”
O’Sullivan was feted at a retirement gala Thursday night. But even though she’s passing the torch, she will continue to live at the House of Hope.
It’s also possible some folks there may continue to address her by a moniker borne mostly of affection: Boss Lady.