Last Wednesday Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten and I took a trip to Back of the Yards to deliver the cash from this year’s first Soup & Bread to Casa Catalina, the Catholic Charities-sponsored Basic Human Needs center at 45th and Ashland. We have been talking about doing this for an entire year, as Katie kept telling me, “You have to meet Sister Joellyn. She’s going to blow you away.” Finally we did, and she did.
Sr. Joellyn Tumas — above in the down vest, between me and another nun, Sr. Mary — is a powerhouse. A member of the order of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ (whoa), she has been in charge of Casa Catalina for 20 years, since it served 50 families out of shared space in the old rectory of Holy Cross Church. Casa Catalina outgrew that home long ago, and now provides food, clothing, diapers, and baby formula to as many as 350 families a a week from its digs at 4537 S. Ashland. All of Casa Catalina’s clients live in the neighborhood — between 43rd and 51st, and Racine and Western.
Casa Catalina’s so well-established in the area, Sr. Joellyn says, that people constantly are turning up with non-food related problems — when they can’t pay the utility bills; when a father has been arrested, or deported; when a mother is fleeing domestic violence. And Sr. Joellyn? She fixes it. As she says in this Dawn Turner Trice Tribune profile from last year, “When you minister to the hungry, it’s not just about food. Children lose their parents. People get evicted. Families get their gas cut off. We just try to help as best we can to make sure basic needs are met.” This short Vimeo piece from 2009 gives a good sense of her level-headed, open-hearted style.
Many of the volunteers at Casa Catalina are former clients themselves. Every Tuesday they pack up at least 310 bags of rice, pasta, beans, and other nonperishable staples, as well as (depending on the week) milk, cheese, meat, and eggs. Sr. Joelleyn says that the money from Soup & Bread may go to buy valuable margarine, or to fill a set of “diabetic bags” full of whole-grain pasta, sugar-free jelly and Jello, plain Cheerios, Splenda, and other foods appropriate for managing diabetes — the need for which, she notes, is growing fast. Lately, she says, she’s also seen a marked increase in the number of single people and couples in their 20s and early 30s — the age bracket for which, if you don’t have kids, there’s not much public aid available.
As we were leaving we stopped and chatted with Sr. Mary. She’s 84 years old and a member of the Congregation de Notre Dame, founded in Montreal in 1653 and one of the first non-cloistered religious communities ever. Sr. Mary gave us a quick rundown of the history of her order and its founder, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. It’s funny that you came today, she added. Today’s Marguerite’s feast day (January 12) and, she said, we celebrate each year with a feast of soup and bread — after the sustenance she promised the French nuns who traveled to the New World to join her order and teach at her school.