Monday 02.20.2017

How Sister Mary Rose Saved Covenant House

In September of 1990, Fordham graduate and Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sister Mary Rose McGeady, D.C., was made captain of a swiftly sinking ship. Sister McGeady was appointed president of Covenant House, the U.S.’s largest shelter network for homeless youth, in the wake of scandal and consequential financial disaster.

Earlier that year, Covenant House’s charismatic founder and president was accused of sexual assault by several young men who reached out to the organization for aid in their youth. These accusations, combined with rumors of financial impropriety, resulted in his resignation in February of 1990.

The New York-based organization, founded in the Lower East Side, had once received an average of $80 million in donations annually and aided nearly 30,000 youths in 11 cities across America. However, in the dark hours of the resignation, Covenant House was $38 million in debt. Its annual income was halved and the organization was forced to begin closing its outreach centers and cutting services.

Covenant House needed a president who donors and young people could trust. Sister McGeady was just the woman, armed with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Fordham University, 40 years of experience with children and teens, the no-nonsense attitude of a CEO, and a dedication to homeless youths that would later earn her the nickname “Mother Theresa of the streets.”

Sister McGeady was born in 1928 into an Irish Catholic family from Hazletown, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Washington D.C., where she attended Immaculate Conception Academy, a high school operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the same community of sisters she would later join in 1946 when she was just 18 years old.

Sister McGeady’s work with children began at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum, where she first engaged with impoverished and homeless youths. After joining the Daughters of Charity, Sister McGeady attended Boston’s Emmanuel College where she earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology. She then graduated from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1961.

Before her role as president of Covenant House, Sister McGeady served as the executive director of Nazareth Child Care Center for Homeless Children in Boston as well as the executive director of Rhinebeck, New York’s Astor Home for Children. At the time of her appointment as president of Covenant House, Sister McGeady was serving as the associate director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

When Sister McGeady arrived at Covenant House in the fall of 1990, she was tasked with confronting the organization’s lethal public relations problem. Under the previous leadership, the organization exposed vulnerable young people to the dangers it claimed to protect them from. Covenant House had lost public trust.

Sister McGeady attacked this problem with stringent new transparency measures. She formalized the rules of child-volunteer relationships and promised donors honest, detailed records of the organization’s spending.

Her honest efforts were met with success. During Sister McGeady’s 13 years as Covenant House’s president, the organization opened new crisis centers, established a 24-hour hotline, improved its street outreach tactics, developed long-term residential programs for homeless youths, and worked with legislators to create job-training opportunities and child care resources for teen mothers.

When Sister McGeady retired in 2003, Covenant House’s annual donations and reached an average of $130 million and the organization was able to provide service in 26 cities and 6 countries to over 50,000 young people annually affected by issues like drugs, homelessness, poverty, sexual abuse, and abandonment.

Kevin Ryan, Covenant House’s current president, described Sister McGeady as a “holy tornado of determination and compassion.”

“She lived and died every day with the successes and failures of our kids and she saw God in the tired fees of the kids who walked through the open doors of Covenant House,” he said.

Sister McGeady died in 2012 at 84 years old in the Daughters of Charity retirement home in Albany, New York with a legacy still very much alive. Covenant House continues to serve thousands of children and teens in the United States, Canada, and Central America. As Sister McGeady once said, “We never finish. It’s amazing how many kids there are.” Sister McGeady’s work secured the Covenant House’s future and gave the organization the honesty and longevity it needs to continue to serve those kids.

Sister McGeady’s life captures the very essence of the Fordham spirit. She lived her life for others with the simultaneous intensity of a CEO. Cardinal John O’Connor observed this quintessentially Fordham ability in her disposition: “Even when she smiles, which is often, it’s a bright and warm smile. but it turns up ever so slightly at one end, as if to say ‘I’m a very friendly lady, but don’t try to push me around.'”

Originally published by Fordham University.