In her early days in religious life a young and joy-filled  Sister Carol Henry and her guitar pose 
for a picture. Courtesy photo
In her early days in religious life a young and joy-filled Sister Carol Henry and her guitar pose for a picture. Courtesy photo
"  Changes were under way...and there wasn’t much grass growing under our feet.” "

It’s been 39 years since Mercy Sister Carol Ann Henry opened the Mercy Center in Asbury Park out of the trunk of her car and began feeding the hungry in body and soul.

Since then, under her watch as founder and executive director, the Mercy Center has grown to become a comprehensive anchor of assistance and an integral part of the greater Asbury Park community.

Its many programs and services operate out of buildings on Main Street that were repurposed to become the Mercy Center’s headquarters, Family Resource Center and a two-story, full-time pantry. In 1997, the program expanded to the West Side of Asbury Park with the opening of Sisters Academy, a middle school for girls from economically challenged families.

Fiscally sound and debt-free, the outreach, a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, is in “good shape,” said Sister Carol, who entered the Sisters of Mercy in Watchung in 1966. “Now, having created all these things, it’s time to hand over the reins [to the] lay folks, good people” who have worked alongside the sisters throughout the years.

Recognizing the Need

Sister Carol brought her ministry to Asbury Park by way of 12 years in the classroom. In a recent interview, she said that when she first entered the community in 1966 “teaching was the only option and I loved kids.”

While teaching school – including St. Joseph School and Cathedral Elementary, both Trenton, and St. Mary Academy, Lakewood – she recognized the needs of children experiencing poverty and felt a growing desire to do more that was fueled by her own observations from childhood.

Sister Carol said that growing up in South Amboy, she had witnessed first-hand the example of her teachers, the Sisters of Mercy in St. Mary Parish and its schools, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry. Her own parents often welcomed neighborhood children to the family’s dinner table and helped those in need in many other ways.

She had been drawn to enter the Sisters of Mercy because of her own experience with them and the legacy of the religious order. Founded by Catherine McAuley, the primary mission of the Mercy Sisters is to provide emergency support, assistance and education to economically disadvantaged people.

“The (Mercy) sisters take four vows,” she said. “Poverty, chastity, obedience and care of the poor and sick. … Changes were under way when I entered,” she said. “We were moving out of old habits, constitutions were changing, governance was changing and there wasn’t much grass growing under our feet.”

Moved to do more for those in need, she sought and obtained approval from the Sisters of Mercy for a project of “direct service” with which she hoped to make a larger community impact. “I asked the major superior if I could go into direct service and she said, ‘sure, you can do it but first you have to get a master’s in social work.”

With fortitude and faith

That task accomplished with a degree in social work from Rutgers University, she set about finding a location that would benefit from direct service and came up with Asbury Park.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the City by the Sea, once the jewel of the central Jersey shoreline, was in serious decline. Many people were hungry, poor, battling mental illness and living in the city’s over-crowded boarding homes, according to the tribute book celebrating the impact Sister Carol had on the community.

“I came to Asbury Park and asked officials if sisters were here, what could we do, what is the biggest need,” she said. The biggest need, they said, was for a full-time food pantry. The city officials gave us our start. There were three [sisters] under the [municipal] health department for three years.”

In 1986, the community helped them purchase what would become the Mercy Center headquarters on Main Street and all the rest followed, said Sister Carol. She noted the help and support of many including Sister Mary Louise Miller, who became the attorney for the Mercy Center and later principal of Sisters Academy, and dedicated volunteers, staff, supporters and board members over the years.

Under Sister Carol’s leadership some 100,200 individuals received emergency services in food, clothing or assistance since 1986. A total of 168,843 beneficiaries received services from the Center’s Family Resource Center since 1997 and 302 girls have graduated from the Sisters Academy since 2001.

The programs have flourished over the years, she said, “because we did the right thing and we are still doing the right thing today. I think that Catherine McAuley would be so excited because this ministry does exactly what she set out to do.”