1951 Vows Still Inspiring Sister Marie Sullivan’s Life
Published: August 18, 2011
Dominican Sister Marie Sullivan is celebrating 60 years as a sister. The Chicago native is founder of the Sullivan Center, Atlanta. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
ATLANTA—Sister Marie Sullivan celebrates her 60-year anniversary as a Sinsinawa Dominican sister this year, reaching a milestone in her journey as a servant of the church.
The life and ministry of Sister Marie is as interesting and varied as the personality of the small-framed nun herself, working with the poor, women and children before founding her own place of ministry in 1984, an organization that is still in operation today, aiding struggling families and individuals in the Atlanta area.
Sister Marie’s Catholic faith and formation in Catholic social teaching were encouraged at a young age as her family provided a positive example.
“We would say the rosary every night, especially during the Second World War,” said Sister Marie, reminiscing about her life as a young girl in the Chicago area. “My mother and dad from Ireland had a very deep faith, and I think I hold to their teaching.”
Her faith grew more during her time at Visitation High School when she first began seriously discerning a vocation to religious life. Sister Marie remembers initially being called to life as a religious sister in grade school when all of her teachers were nuns, but she didn’t really give it serious consideration until her teenage years. In high school she really became drawn to social issues.
“We had some wonderful teachers, especially teaching the social issues. Even in those days we were trying to keep up with the social teachings of the faith,” she said.
Sister Marie made her first vows with the Dominican order in 1951, a decision that made her parents very proud.
“In those days it was an honor for an Irish family to have a priest or nun in their family, so they were pleased,” she said.
The young sister was planning to be a teacher, serving the church like many of the Dominican nuns who taught her in her formative years. However, after teaching elementary education for more than 10 years in the Bronx, N.Y., and in Kansas City, Mo., Sister Marie recognized that families needed something more. She felt she could be more effective by empowering individuals and teaching them life skills in order to help them break the cycle of poverty with which they were struggling.
This realization led Sister Marie to pursue a master’s degree in social work—one of the first women in her order to do so—from St. Louis University, a Jesuit Catholic school in Missouri. After two years of graduate school, she returned to Kansas City and became a day care coordinator, overseeing seven day care centers and two homes that served the needs of some 500 children. While in Missouri, Sister Marie also took on a post at the Kansas City Seton Center, where she cared for elderly people in nursing homes and also oversaw emergency assistance for the center’s clients.
More than 25 years ago, in 1983, she came to Atlanta to oversee the emergency operations for the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta. In this capacity, she helped to provide food to the homeless of the area before again recognizing a lack of education and support necessary to bring destitute people out of their current situations.
“To me, that’s where religion is: out with the people,” she said. “My point is, let’s do what we can for the person we see.”
Realizing she needed an organized staff to accomplish her vision of resolving the root causes of homelessness, Sister Marie helped to organize a coalition of churches and employees to provide emergency assistance to low-income and homeless people in midtown Atlanta. In 1984, this coalition became known as the Christian Emergency Help Centers. From this initial group many organizations blossomed, some of which are still in operation today, including the Midtown Assistance Center, Buckhead Christian Ministry and the Achor Center. The board of the Christian Emergency Help Centers eventually voted unanimously in the mid-1990s to change the organization’s name to the Sullivan Center, in honor of Sister Marie and her work.
In 1986, Sister Marie also established a computerized database so social service agencies could better work together. She felt using the emerging technology to track local assistance programs and the aid they delivered would be helpful. What began as an urge to help the less fortunate has grown into a network of services to aid people locally, one that remains strong to this day.
The Sullivan Center continues to work from Sister Marie’s motto, “a hand up, not a handout,” as she encourages an approach that requires people to attend educational classes in order to receive assistance. She hopes to establish an environment where people can create their own stability with the aid and encouragement of others, rather than relying solely on others for assistance. By providing financial and employment help, while teaching important life skills, the center has impacted some 40,000 people in Georgia, according to the Sullivan Center.
Sister Marie’s work in the field of low-income and homeless aid has earned her recognition in the community over several decades. She received the 11 Alive Community Service Award in 1995, the West Point Society of Atlanta’s Outstanding Georgia Citizen Award in 2002 and Atlanta’s Phoenix Award in 2009.
She retired as the executive director three years ago, but continues to support and sustain the work of the Sullivan Center by working with donors and with the board of directors. She recently helped launch another program called ECOPAAT, “Enriching Communities One Plot at a Time,” a neighborhood nonprofit association that teaches people how to grow and maintain a garden and build a healthier way of life for their families.
Sister Marie recently attended an anniversary celebration in the Wisconsin motherhouse of the Sinsinawa Dominicans. Most remarkably, she and 20 other Dominican sisters jointly celebrated their 60th jubilee year there. For Sister Marie, the religious life remains an important part of the ministry of the church.
“As religious, we have taken a vow . . . and as Dominicans our motto is to ‘give to others the fruit of our contemplation,’” she said. “Nowadays people really hunger for something spiritual.”