BALTIMORE – Peeking out from beneath a tan tarp as she sat in the alley alongside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Baltimore, an elderly woman watched three young nuns stroll her way.
"Anyone here?" asked one of the religious sisters, stopping in front of the humblest of city abodes on a damp, chilly May afternoon.
The sisters, wearing long beige veils and flowing brown habits cinched by knotted ropes, took out a thermos and poured a cup of hot chocolate.
Tentatively, a gloved hand emerged from the tarp, accepting the drink and a small bag of marshmallows. The rest of the woman's body remained largely concealed beneath the makeshift covering, her face encircled by the faux-fur hood of a beat-up winter coat.
The woman has been on the streets a "long time," she admitted, a victim of what she claimed was an unlawful eviction. She sees the nuns regularly walking the city streets. They are among only a handful of people who ever stop to say hello or even make eye contact, she said.
The sisters reminded the woman that God loves her. Together, they prayed an Our Father before the smiling nuns moved on to chat with some of the other people experiencing homelessness who dwell in the same alley.
"It means a lot to talk with them," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "They are so kind. They give us emotional healing. Their prayers are healing words."
Since November, three Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ – a new international order of nuns based in South America – have been living inside a renovated convent at the Baltimore Basilica. The newcomers' mission in Charm City is simple, yet profound: to be Christ's presence among the poor, lonely and forgotten.
Sister Giovana of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, a 26-year-old religious sister from Brazil, serves as the local superior of the Baltimore apostolate, known as the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Mission. She is joined by Sister Samaritan of Scourged Love, a 31-year-old sister from Nicaragua; and Sister Maria Clara of the Crucified, a 24-year-old sister from Paraguay. A fourth sister recently arrived from Brazil, Sister Salva de Jesús Resucitado, who is 21 years old. (The sisters do not use their given last names.)
Sister Giovana is the only sister who speaks fluent English. The others, however, are making rapid progress as they study the language at the Adult Learning Center in Baltimore.
"We're not here to be social workers or pretend to solve society's problems," Sister Giovana told the Catholic Review, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "We are here to provide people with an encounter with the person and love of Jesus Christ. That is what is most needed among the homeless and the poor – and also among those who might have a home, but are so lonely and broken. We provide them an opportunity to believe and to have hope and joy."
People experiencing homelessness are not numbers, Sister Giovana said. They are sons and daughters of God who have names and stories.
Demonstrating a fearless confidence, the sisters walk freely through some of the most troubled parts of the city. During a recent walk outside Lexington Market where drug deals are commonplace, the nuns' wooden rosary beads clacked at their sides as they smiled at passersby and stopped to offer a sandwich and some candy to a man sprawled out on a sidewalk. The nuns gave fist bumps to others, holding hands as they offered prayers for various needs.
Earlier, they met with a loud man wearing a yellow neon jacket and carrying a sign saying he was a homeless U.S. Navy veteran. The frenetic figure took a break from begging on Mulberry Street to greet the sisters and pray with them. During the Our Father, he offered an unconventional recitation of the prayer.
"Give us this day our daily bread," the man prayed. "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."
The nuns finished the prayer in the traditional way, grinning widely.
In addition to meeting with the poor and those who experience homelessness, the sisters visit Baltimore's notorious red-light district, where they pray the rosary on the Block.
Together with the Source of all Hope urban missionaries stationed at the Baltimore Basilica, they give out food regularly at the Pope John Paul II Prayer Garden and along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The sisters also give retreats at Catholic parishes and organizations.
As they learn more about Baltimore, they hope to do more to reach those caught up in the sex industry.
In addition to the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the sisters take a Marian vow of total availability to the poor.
Sister Giovana said no one has harmed the sisters. Her impression of Baltimore is that it is a place whose people have a thirst for God. She has been inspired by the people she has met, recalling a recent conversation with a woman experiencing homelessness who told her violence in the city is the result of people not loving one another as Christ commanded.
"She said we don't love one another because we hate ourselves first," Sister Giovana recalled. "We don't love God because we don't know what he has created. That is so profound. Every time we meet with the poor, it reminds me of the passage in Scripture that says God has revealed to the simple the things hidden from the wise."
Sister Giovana said the sisters' ministry is grounded in prayer. The nuns pray as a community five times a day, complete a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament and attend daily Mass at the basilica. There are scheduled times for personal prayer.
"I believe our ministry wouldn't make sense if we wouldn't have this time with the Lord," she said. "We wouldn't have Jesus to share if we wouldn't come to him first. There's a beautiful connection between Jesus in the poor and Jesus in the Eucharist – both are poor and both are vulnerable, right?"
George P. Matysek Jr. is managing editor of the Catholic Review, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.