Thomas Dixon grew up in a world where adults sometimes drank and partied too much, and children sometimes didn’t get the help they needed.
One summer day in the 1970s, a nun with a stuffed toy monkey changed that. Sister Jean Thuerauf opened her home to Dixon, then about 6, and the neighborhood children, helping them with homework while gently teasing out their worries over a cookie-making session.
“She was a real saint,” Dixon recalled recently.
Thuerauf, 85, died June 10 of natural causes long after a diagnosis of dementia. Dixon, 45, rushed to her bedside when he heard she had taken a turn for the worst.
“To me, she was the mother of the North Side,” he said.
After surviving a brain virus that temporarily blinded and nearly killed her in the early 1970s, Thuerauf left the Sisters of Mercy order and struck out on her own in 1976 as a one-woman street ministry in north Minneapolis.
Some had their concerns about her new calling. After all, she had spent the preceding years teaching at Our Lady of Grace in Edina and in schools in Iowa.
“I know there were some raised eyebrows and some hand-wringing,” said her niece, Louise Hotka. “It took a certain kind of bravery to do what she did.”
Thuerauf walked the streets with her toy monkey, Jocko, ministering to residents. She connected residents with parishioners at Our Lady of Grace for help buying food and books for their children, among other needs, said Beverly Mooney, who often accompanied her.
“She didn’t expect people to put her on a pedestal,” said Mooney, who said she and Thuerauf were best friends. “She just did what she did for the love of it.”
Mooney first met Thuerauf when both lived in Iowa, where Thuerauf taught Mooney’s children. Thuerauf was born on a farm near Solon, Iowa, the second oldest of six children.
She graduated from Solon High School, entered the Sisters of Mercy convent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and graduated from Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids in 1950. She moved to Minneapolis in the early 1970s.
Hotka said her aunt always admired Mother Teresa, and was called to work in north Minneapolis after her near-death experience. She founded the Mercy Missionaries there in 1985.
Thuerauf lived in north Minneapolis before entering Catholic Eldercare senior housing a few years ago. She invited children into her home to celebrate their birthdays, on which occasion they were allowed to pick a gift from shelves stocked with new toys.
“If she was there, Sister Jean was opening her door — and without fear,” Dixon said.
And those cookie-making sessions? They morphed into a nonprofit, Cookie Cart, which employs 200 teenagers each year while also providing career counseling and financial literary training. The nonprofit, which plans to open a St. Paul location in 2017, was featured on “The Today Show” last December.
Dixon was there when the first Cookie Cart — an actual cart selling cookies on the streets of north Minneapolis — was born. But he was eventually lured away by the darker side of street life. Although he’d greet Thuerauf if he spotted her on her walking ministry, by age 11 he had stopped going to her house. By his late teens, he’d cut all ties.
Then, in 1999, a 29-year-old Dixon walked into a south Minneapolis church.
“Hey, Thomas,” Thuerauf greeted him.
“It just stunned me, because she had dealt with so many kids, and to realize — she remembered all of our names,” he said. “It was amazing to just have that kind of person in your life.”
Thuerauf is survived by a sister, Mary Ann Hotka, brothers David and Paul Thuerauf, and several nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by a brother, Bernard Thuerauf, a sister, Patricia Spychaj, and her parents, John and Helen Thuerauf. Services have been held.