Shelter founder is
'good troublemaker'

A lady who likes to be in control and has a single-minded focus on social justice, regardless of how people may react to her or her methods.

That is a description many people who have encountered her — whether at war protests, in advocacy for the homeless or through initiatives to ensure proper burials for the poor — would agree fits Sister of Mercy Grace Miller.

The exterior of the House of Mercy seen from Hudson Avenue in 2011.

Sister Miller brought her advocacy work to Rochester's Central Park a little more than three decades ago when she opened the doors to the homeless shelter House of Mercy. The ministry — which moved to Hudson Avenue in 1994 — was sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy until 2002, when Sister Miller spun it off with an independent board of directors. A book about the House of Mercy's history, A Place of Mercy: Finding God on the Street by former volunteer Dr. Thomas O'Brien, was released during the ministry's 20th-anniversary year.

The House of Mercy is known as a "low-barrier shelter," which means its staff provides housing for a population that is difficult to serve due to mental illness and/or substance abuse, and that would not be accepted at other area shelters. The House of Mercy also does not impose limits on the length of a person's stay at the shelter, and its residents can drop in after they leave.

One of Sister Miller's goals for the ministry is finding a bigger location to eliminate the risk of people ending up on the streets during extreme weather. Recent developments on this front indicate that her goal may finally be achieved next year. Meanwhile, she says she will continue to demand a community response for sheltering the homeless this coming winter.

"She really is a thorn in the side of people in power," observed Rita Lewis, who has worked at the House of Mercy with Sister Miller since 1987. "She really calls out injustice being perpetrated."

Sister Miller, who marked her 80th birthday in July with a community celebration, says her work is about justice for the poor.

"Look at Christ in the New Testament," she said in a recent interview with the Catholic Courier. "He came to change the law, oppressive laws. For Jesus, the law was love. If we practiced love the way Jesus practiced love, we wouldn't have all these problems."


Hospitality

A sense of caring and hospitality was instilled at an early age for Sister Miller, her twin brother, the late Father Neil Miller, and their sister, Jean Ruocco, who still lives in their native Corning.

Willie C. White and fellow representatives from the House of Mercy in 1993.

Their mother was born in Italy and their father was raised there until the age of 5, she said, so their house in Corning became a welcoming station of sorts for relatives visiting or immigrating from Italy. The family's home also was filled with faith and spirituality, and she and her siblings were educated in Catholic schools where they were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, she noted.

Hospitality, service to others and to God are practices Sister Miller said she now sees being brought to the forefront by Pope Francis, whom she went to see during his visit to Philadelphia. She proudly wears a giant pin that reads: "I saw the Pope."

The Holy Father has rejuvenated her mission of helping the least of our society, as he urges Catholics to do.

"Her mission, I can't say enough, is all about poor people," observed Kelly Finnigan, a social worker who serves alongside Sister Miller at the House of Mercy. "She works seven days a week. She has no life other than this place."

"It's never about herself," Sister of Mercy Patricia Prinzing said of Sister Miller's work. "It's about the people she's serving."

Sister Miller is "the mother of the poor," said Jackie Brooken, a Saint Lucia native who met Sister Miller when Brooken moved to Rochester with her 6-month-old baby in 1992. Sister Miller helped her find an apartment and get settled and, when the baby and a sibling were old enough, helped pay their tuition so they could attend Catholic schools.

Brooken has been repaying these kindnesses ever since, volunteering as a driver to pick up donated furniture and food, and leading a choir for the Mass said at the House of Mercy every Sunday.

"She's fighting for all of us … no matter what we need," Brooken said. "That is why she is the mother of the poor."

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"She's fighting for all of us ...
no matter what we need."

Stirring consciences

Sister Miller also is fearless when it comes to speaking out against structures she sees as oppressing the poor, said Harry Murray.

Murray participated with Sister Miller in the "Ash Wednesday 13," a group of nonviolent activists who were arrested for trying to enter the Federal Building in Rochester on Ash Wednesday 2003, just days before America's invasion of Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush. Murray and Sister Miller also were arrested a few years later for stepping outside a "free speech zone" during President Bush's 2005 visit to the town of Greece.

Sister Grace Miller speaks to a Rochester Police Officer in the early 1990’s.

Sister Miller proudly acknowledges that she's been arrested six times, including while protesting the finger-printing of social-services recipients in 1996 and in 2014 for trespassing on Monroe County property when county officials rejected a proposal for a homeless shelter and closed the Civic Center garage to homeless people.

County officials declined to comment on their interactions with Sister Miller. Yet Murray speculated on the attitude of some government officials toward her.

"In our capitalistic, bureaucratic, militarist society, there is no shortage of such organizations and policies, and there are, unfortunately, many human beings who are complicit in those structures," he said. "Speaking out prophetically against oppression, and refusing to accept tepid justifications of such policies will offend some of those who are involved in those policies."

"She's the kind of person people don't necessarily like to have around," remarked Sister Prinzing, who is vice president of the Sisters of Mercy communities in Rochester, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, the Philippines and Erie, Pa. "She stirs people's conscience. And yet it's because of that (attitude) that she's able to provide help for these people who no one else would care for. It's true. She takes those whom no one else will take."

Finnigan got a firsthand view of Sister Miller's frank approach eight years ago when he talked with her about working for House of Mercy. He recalled her asking him to work an overnight shift for just $12,000 a year. With a wife and children to support, he couldn't do it.

"We both kind of laughed and kept in touch with each other," he said. "But she says what's on her mind. She's 100-percent honest. She's fearless … and (that has) gotten her into some trouble in the past with certain people and certain groups."

Now that he works with her every day, Finnigan said he finds her blunt honesty refreshing. He came on board earlier this year when Ken Glazer of Buckingham Properties provided House of Mercy a temporary facility to shelter homeless people in the winter; the city closed that building, called Sanctuary Village, in April.

"You always know what you're getting with Sister Grace," he added.

Resident Gerald Giocondo at the House of Mercy.

"Her focus is working with the poorest of the poor," said Bernie Sass, current president of House of Mercy's board of directors. "That includes people that are the most difficult to serve. She makes no apologies for letting her priorities lie where they do. I respect her for that."

"She goes to the courthouse. She goes to the mayor. She goes to the legislators to fight for the homeless," noted Sister Prinzing. "People get really annoyed with her. But if she wasn't annoying people, nothing would happen. It takes a special person to be able to do that."

As Sister Miller pursues her priorities, her sense of urgency can create points of friction when she sees a potential partner that has great resources but is slow to respond, Sass noted.

"She's had differences of opinion on many occasions with anybody who she thought they'd be a great resource, that would include even the Catholic Church, even the Sisters of Mercy," he added.

"A good troublemaker" is how Sister Miller is described by Freddie Henry, who has lived in the house on and off, and volunteers there as well. "Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in regardless of where everybody else is at," he said.

While Sister Miller and city officials have disagreed at times about the best plan of action, especially when it came to the closing of Sanctuary Village last spring, Mayor Lovely Warren said the city remains committed to helping her find a new building to help more of the homeless population.

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and by helping our most vulnerable citizens, a city becomes stronger overall," Warren said. "Sister Grace Miller takes this to heart. She is a fierce advocate for those that need a voice, and by helping better their situations, it improves our city, allowing us to create more jobs, safer neighborhoods and better educational opportunities."

"... by helping our most vulnerable citizens,
a city becomes stronger overall."

A 'deeply spiritual' place

Giving voice to the voiceless is how the House of Mercy came into existence.

Following the civil-rights riots in the city of Rochester in the 1960s, Sister Miller became involved in urban ministry and came to better understand the needs of the poor in regard to employment and education opportunities.

"My eyes were opened to the real plight of the poor," she said.

"My eyes were opened to the real plight of the poor"

She then spent a few years traveling around the country, including a stop in Harlem that raised her awareness of the need to help homeless people. She came back to Rochester in the early 1980s with a desire to do more to serve this population. Once she realized that homeless people could be refused at many shelters, Sister Miller knew she found her mission to raise her voice for their needs and find the resources they need. And the House of Mercy of Rochester was born — open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to anyone in need.

"This is a place of last resort," said Sister Miller. "When they have no place to go, we'll keep them."

"The House of Mercy has always been … a point of referral," with staff serving as de facto case managers, Sass said. "Once you get to know the people, our resources are the resources of the community. … Every effort is made to see if you can't match them with something made available to an individual based on their needs. There's no point in housing these people beyond giving them proper shelter if you can't do what's necessary for them as a next step."

Many of the house's clients need a facilitator to help them with something as simple as getting an identification card, navigating confusing paperwork or sticking to a schedule of appointments. They also are referred to other agencies for substance-abuse treatment or mental-health services. The house has informal partnerships with University of Rochester medical students to provide medical treatment and with county social workers to find such resources as employment or housing for residents.

The House of Mercy "really gets drawn in to anything that is an impediment, preventing these people from getting services available to them," Sass said.

Lewis described the House of Mercy as a "deeply spiritual" place.

"One of the closest encounters with the Lord for me is being with the poor," she said. "That is what keeps me here. (The homeless) call me to holiness."


Rules of the House

While the House of Mercy's goal is to provide shelter and referrals to social services, substance-abuse or mental-health programs, the house's staff and board understand the challenges of helping the homeless.

Thus, the "Rules of the House" are posted on the walls of the Hudson Avenue shelter, noted Sass and Finnigan. Among those rules, which also were posted at Sanctuary Village when it was open, are the following: No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, no sex and "respect others as you'd have them respect you."

Rita Lewis straightens a poster displaying the rules for the house.

Some area shelters might ban a person for 30 or 60 days for violations of their rules, Finnigan said. At the House of Mercy, on the other hand, staff members, who get to know their clients very well, might give a violator a warning or ask him to take a walk, he added.

"When there are occasions of an issue of drug use, that's followed up," explained Sass. "That's something that's not allowed or tolerated. At the same time, we have to understand that people who may have dependencies are welcome to stay at the House of Mercy."

Generally, the house remains a safe place, Finnigan noted.

"The people we serve for the most part are gentle and kind," he said. "There is a lot of mental illness, a lot of substance abuse."

Finnigan said the only times he feels uncomfortable are when he confronts forces outside the house, such as drug dealers or other people in the neighborhood who try to prey on the clients.

A resident rests in a side hall at the House of Mercy in 2011.

But Sister Miller never has to worry for her personal safety, he added.

"She is a protected person in the neighborhood," Finnigan said. "Nobody would let anything happen to Sister Grace. She is seen as a beacon of hope to so many people. People would defend her with their lives."

Sister Prinzing said concerns about safety were not motivating factors in the decision to spin the House of Mercy off from the Sisters of Mercy in 2002. She said the decision, which was mutual, was based on multiple factors, but specifically that the House of Mercy wanted to have "total control" of its operations.

"We agreed. Grace agreed," she added. "It was the best way for everybody to move forward. … The board has functioned as a great board and helped move (House of Mercy) forward."

A new House of Mercy

Moving forward is what the House of Mercy will do in 2016 as it expands its operations in a new building that is more than double the size of the current space, Finnigan said.

The building at 285 Ormond St. is a mile south of the house's current location. Sister Miller said she is in the process of purchasing the property with a donation of $210,000 from a single donor who has yet to be identified.

"We wanted to stay close to our location but be closer to downtown," Finnigan added, as well as be accessible to the train and bus stations.

The House of Mercy also raised nearly $100,000 through a recent online campaign focused on Sister Miller’s 80th birthday in July, Finnigan explained. These funds will help cover operational costs.

Finnigan said he gets frustrated by local gossip about where the money raised has gone. All the funds are sitting in a bank account awaiting the closing of the building purchase, he said. And the board of directors has implemented financial controls including the filing of financial and accounting reports required of any nonprofit organization, Sass said.

Sister Miller doesn't even take a salary or vacation, Finnigan noted, adding that the house has a small operating budget.

The concern right now is what will happen to homeless people this winter while the House of Mercy prepares to move into its new building next year, Finnigan said.

"... there is only one, only one Sister Grace."

"Once operational, which we believe will be late spring or summer, we will eliminate the need for a tent city or Sanctuary Village in the future," he said. "It will be big enough to shelter every single person who needs shelter."

Now that Sister Miller has reached the age of 80, Finnigan said he prays for her good health. He will take on a leadership position in the new location, but Finnigan said he foresees another nun or priest stepping forward to carry on Sister Miller's work when the time comes.

"But there is only one, only one Sister Grace," he emphasized.

In the meantime, Finnigan and other advocates have been talking with local officials as well as Catholic and other parishes to see what options are available in the community for the homeless this winter. Perhaps other shelters will be able to increase their capacities, or the county can ease sanctions — for such infractions as missing an assigned job interview — that prevent individuals from staying at a temporary shelter, he said.

"We can relatively easily (help) people who need shelter if we have a community response," Finnigan said.

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What would Jesus do?

Whether it involves calling a community meeting to find partners to provide emergency housing during a bitter winter or holding up signs in front of the Monroe County building to get the attention of government officials, Sister Miller said her work stems from the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35-40).

"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat ... I was a stranger and you invited me in," she said.

"There is such a sense of care and concern for those individuals" who come to the House of Mercy, Sass said. "And (that caring) is simply communicated to anybody (who) steps into the place."

And anyone who encounters Sister Miller knows her care and concern comes from her deep faith, Sass remarked, noting that in conversations Sister Miller frequently asks, "What would Jesus do?"

Sister Miller said the bottom line is that she wants the people at the House of Mercy to receive the mercy of God.

"They are God's creation," she said. "God loves you no matter what you experienced. ... I want people to realize there is a God who loves them."

She said she strives to live out the compassion of Christ, shown in such miracles as Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fish.

Sister Grace in her office at the House of Mercy in late 2010.

Staff member C.W. Earlsey in the office at the House of Mercy in early 2011.

Jeff Willard resides in the House of Mercy since becoming homeless.

Sister Miller has no life outside of the House of Mercy, Finnigan said. "It's a testament to her commitment to this place and this people," he said. "It is so hard to imagine this place without her."

"As long as she can help the homeless, she doesn't care what people think," added Sister Prinzing. "I believe she's a very, very courageous woman. As a Sister of Mercy, she's certainly doing what our foundress (Catherine) McAuley did: really working with the poor, really out on the streets."

"I have seen her in a number of contexts, and I have been overwhelmed by her willingness to go to almost any length to help persons who are vulnerable and being abused by other persons or by the system," said Murray, who attends Mass at the House of Mercy every Sunday.

"God loves you no matter what you experienced... I want people to realize there is a God who loves them."

He recalled encountering a woman with a baby as he, Sister Miller and Lewis left an appearance in Greece Town Court following the President Bush incident. The woman was crying because she had no car seat to transport her baby and had been informed that she would be arrested if she put the baby in the car without one. Sister Miller and Lewis comforted her and went out to buy her a car seat.

"I have seen these works of mercy repeated many times, and I know that the guests and residents of the House of Mercy are fiercely loyal to her," Murray added. "Does she beat to her own drummer? I would say rather that she beats to the spirit of Jesus, the spirit of St. Francis, the spirit of Pope Francis, the spirit of Dorothy Day."

C.W. Lewis, who has worked on and off at the house and was shot there during a robbery in 2003, said Sister Miller sees the good in everyone she serves.

"We don't believe in a hand out but a hand up. That's what we try to do for our people here. We make them feel as important as people who have everything," he said. "Sister Grace is Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day combined."

"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat ...
I was a stranger and you invited me in."

 
Story by Annette Jiménez
Video by Jeff Witherow
Design by Brendan Parker
Photos by Mike Crupi and Jeff Witherow

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