An old classmate of mine recently wrote me a letter and referred to my sister, Mary Agnes, as a living saint.
As her older brother, I of course laughed. Mary Agnes is strong-willed, passionate, idealistic, relentless. She’s also funny, smart, and charming, so long as you agree with her, my siblings might add. Saintly isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but lately I’m willing to reconsider.
Mary Agnes is the director of St. Margaret Center, a thriving Catholic Charities outpost located in Lennox off the 405 freeway, not far from LAX. One could argue that all that passion, stubbornness, and idealism are the perfect traits for someone dedicated to serving the poorest and most defenseless among us. It doesn’t hurt that she seems to have a bottomless love for those she serves as well.
A native Angeleno and graduate of Loyola Marymount, Mary Agnes had spent time in Ecuador, where she saw John Paul II during his historic visit there in 1985. Upon her return, she applied for a job as a bilingual secretary at Catholic Charities. A year and a half later, St. Margaret Center opened, and she was appointed its first and only director.
For more than 30 years, she has expanded the services of the center, arranging everything from showers for the homeless to medical services, ESL classes, a food pantry, and programs for diaper distribution, utility relief, and more. She counts on an army of volunteers ranging from dedicated seniors to college students as well as her small, dedicated staff.
She’s seen a lot in three decades: the booms and the busts; the dot-com bubble and the Great Recession; the skyrocketing housing prices and the relentless war on the undocumented. But nothing compares with what is happening now. She’s never managed through a pandemic.
“I’m so shell-shocked,” she said.
“We are getting so many new people for our services,” she told me after a long day in a long week in a longer month. “Some people are waiting for unemployment checks or stimulus checks,” and they come to St. Margaret Center to fill the gap. Some are the newly homeless. Some are the undocumented.
In this crisis atmosphere, she is losing many of her most reliable volunteers. They are older and many are not able to risk working in such an exposed atmosphere. The students are all gone, too. Even some of her staff have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk. Her pantry now only offers food one day a week instead of three, but she’s serving more families than she used to serve in a week.
It’s a loaves-and-fishes story. Somehow, the food still comes in. And somehow, each week she still gets volunteers. The families they serve register for slots and usually come in cars to limit exposure. Out in the narrow driveway, Mary Agnes processes each family herself. She stands out there for seven hours, talking to the families in English or Spanish, directing them where to go, keeping them spaced apart.
The volunteers give each family about 40 pounds of food. Beans and rice, canned goods. Also fresh: one meat, one dairy, fruits, and veggies. Bread is hard to come by, she said, and donations are tougher now. Yet Mary Agnes and her team are still able to serve 200 families in one day.
She has a mask, but it’s hard to breathe. She has gloves, but doesn’t like them. By the time you read this, the center will likely be out of hand sanitizer, and Mary Agnes spends valuable time trying to track down masks and gloves for her staff. Yet she knows that one positive case for the coronavirus and the center might be shut.
The rest of the week St. Margaret Center offers services for the homeless: case management, housing referrals, showers, and sack lunches. The center also helps the undocumented negotiate the byzantine immigration system.
For Mary Agnes, she just wants people to know that Catholic Charities is still open, still helping. Its centers need support: volunteers, supplies, and money. She’s tired, and at times there is a hint of vulnerability in her voice. She worries that a financial wall is getting closer. Yet her larger concern is for the people who are left out of the system, who don’t know how to get assistance, or who can’t. “All the people who can’t get mainstream aid, I worry for them,” she said.
She’s my sister, so obviously I’m proud of her. But my sister is one of thousands of saints-in-the-making who are determined not to give up during this terrible time.
I wish our Church was able to tell its story better: All the thousands of aid organizations, hospitals, and clinics, all the schools caring for their children sheltering in place, all the chaplains, the first responders, all the priests, brothers, and women religious, and especially all the laypeople like my sister and her staff who give of themselves day in and day out.
We may take what they do for granted, but those they serve most assuredly do not. And when I look at my sister, with her big smile and big heart, I think, this is our Church. And I’m so damn proud.
To donate to Catholic Charities in this time of need, visit CatholicCharitiesLA.org/donate, where you can select the location you would like to help. For more information about St. Margaret’s Center, call 310-672-2208 or send an email to [email protected].