On a warm October afternoon, Sister Katherine Mullin strolled with a berry pie to her neighbors’ home on the North Side of Minneapolis. She asked the children, who know her and the five other nuns of Visitation Monastery, if their parents were home.
Their parents were at the hospital with their brother, the kids said. The nun asked why.
“Our brother got shot,” one of them said.
Soon, Sister Katherine was leading the family in prayer, feeding their spirits as much as their stomachs. It was one more act of goodness in 25 years of spiritual leadership from the pioneering nuns of Visitation Monastery.
The “Nuns in the Hood,” as they’re known, are a beloved fixture at peace walks, vigils for the slain, and community causes.
They’ve thrown birthday parties and rounded up school supplies for children who otherwise would have none. They’ve opened their doors to those seeking peace, spiritual sustenance and forgiveness.
Daily, they help those on the edge economically with a bus token, groceries or other items in exchange for a chore at two houses and a retreat center they have in Minneapolis’ Near North Side neighborhood.
“They give so much more than that,” said Bianca Franks, a 33-year-old single mother who is a trained Visitation lay leader. “It’s just the idea of being present and having someone not only see but appreciate you and love you.”
The nuns were there for Lulu, a drug dealer they found dying of a gunshot wound on their boulevard. Two nuns cradled him in their arms, praying for they dying man.
“They’re like angels to us people on the North Side,” said lay leader Linda Goynes, 62, whom the nuns helped overcome addiction and abuse.
The urban monastery, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, was started by four nuns in 1989.
Today, with the nuns ranging in age from 65 to 86, they’re working to ensure Visitation Monastery will continue after they’re gone.
The sisters are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the monastery this month.
They live in two kitty-corner monastic houses, in the 1500 block of Fremont Avenue N., and 1600 block of Girard Avenue N. They also rent the St. Jane House, a retreat center at 1403 Emerson Av. N.
The nuns model gentleness, nonviolence and a willingness to help anyone. They are bridging their neighborhood with others around the metro.
“They’re an island of peace,” said retired journalist and professor Dave Nimmer, who met the nuns many years ago. When troubles weigh heavy, he drives from Woodbury to pray with them. The nuns helped his former wife, Kris Hulsebus, as she was dying of cancer last winter.
“They are the closest thing that I can see to the face of Christ, of God, on this Earth,” Nimmer said.
He and others are helping the nuns plan for the future.
They hope to found a Visitation community of lay people who will live and work alongside the monastery, said Sister Mary Frances Reis.
To begin, the nuns want at least two people to live alongside the monastery for at least five years. The nuns will help select property, provide limited funding and assist in other ways.
They’re also training lay leaders to carry on the North Side ministry, which is to “live Jesus” with the virtues of patience, simplicity, gentleness, joy and hope.
“What the Lord put in our hearts,” said Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie, “was that the poor deserve to have their contemplatives.”
A tough location
Some worried about them living in the “hood.” In commissioning them in October 1989, Archbishop John Roach said, “I am happy I am sending the angels with you!”
Sisters Mary Margaret, Mary Virginia Schmidt, Karen Mohan and Mary Frances founded the monastery. Sisters Katherine Mullin and Suzanne Homeyer joined later.
As they listened to the neighbors, the nuns’ agenda became clear.
“We came to live our life of prayer and community,” said Sister Mary Francis. “The Lord did put on our hearts that when the doorbell rings, we get our agenda from the people.”
At first, they focused on kids, hanging a colorful windsock outside to let them know when they could come and play. Then the nuns began ministering to entire families and linking them to community-action agencies.
They give opportunities for education; a weekly prayer and meditation group; retreats for one or more people; tutoring and a haven for neighborhood kids; community dinners and events that promote peace and justice; and much more.
The monastery is home base for support groups and organizations, including From Death to Life, begun by Mary Johnson to offer healing groups for parents of murder victims and convicted killers.
In 1993, her 20-year-old son was slain in north Minneapolis by a 16-year-old gang member, who went to prison. She’s forgiven him, and since his release they trek the nation, speaking on reconciliation.
Former Gangster Disciple Will Wallace recalls the night long ago when he stood in an alley, crack pipe in one hand and a wad of cash in the other, and decided to turn things around.
Sixteen years ago, he knocked on the nuns’ door. He told them his story and that he was being called to serve.
“They changed my life a whole lot,” Wallace said.
He’s brought gang members to the nuns’ houses for projects that help rehabilitate. They have, for example, delivered Thanksgiving turkey baskets to poor families. It’s helped the young men understand that as they sell illicit drugs to parents, they take food from kids’ mouths and destroy their own community, Wallace said.
“It changes their mind-set,” he said. “It touches them when a mama comes to the door and says, ‘Tell the sisters that we really thank them.’ ”
In August 1989, Linda Goynes awoke from a three-month coma.
At 37, she found herself in a hospital bed in Omaha, moved from Hennepin County Medical Center after a heart attack while smoking crack cocaine.
“When I was in a coma, I was praying, and I was asking God that if he brought me out of a coma, and if I wasn’t a vegetable, I would work for him for the rest of my life,” she said.
Goynes relearned to walk with physical therapy. In June 1996, she met the nuns.
“When I walked into their house, it was just a real good feeling,” she said. “They have the most kind, wonderful hearts you can ever imagine.”
Goynes works at Church of the Ascension. She volunteers for the nuns in many ways, registering kids for Catholic Youth Camp and filling Thanksgiving baskets and bagging Christmas toys.
“I’m one of the poor people whose lives they’ve changed,” she said. “I didn’t have much.”
She’s also among those who worry over the nuns’ safety. “I do all the time, but they don’t fear anything because they have a powerful God who watches over them.”
Visitation volunteer Eddie Brown said the nuns take gang members head on, something most lifelong North Side residents would never do.
The nuns helped Brown, a recovering addict, come up with a $17,000 downpayment to buy his own house after 20 years of homelessness, he said.
“To me, the nuns are like angels come from a prayer because the things that they do in north Minneapolis are just unbelievable,” he said. “They’re always thinking of how they can help the neighborhood and the families.”
The neighborhood has officially adopted the “Nuns in the Hood,” replete with a ceremony and plaque. They are protected, Brown said.
“They’re our nuns!” he said. “Every neighborhood should have nuns in the hood!”