By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
In the late 1960s, a handful of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth teaching in West Louisville noticed their students were coming to school hungry and wearing dirty clothing.
Upon visiting the students’ homes, the sisters found homes that lacked food and running water. They decided something needed to be done to help the families.
In 1969, Sister Visitor Center was born. The center, now part of Catholic Charities of Louisville, has been serving the area’s neediest families ever since.
“It’s been an honor to serve people who are in a crisis, to help them be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph Michele Intravia, the director of the center who recounted its early days during an interview last week.
Noting the words of St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline Sisters, she said the center seeks to “serve the needs of the time.
“At this time in our society there is a great need,” she said.
Today, Sister Visitor staff and volunteers still visit the homes of the sick, the elderly and families in need, although not as frequently as when the center first opened.
Located at 23rd and West Market Streets, across Market from the old St. Anthony Church, the center provides emergency help with rent, utility bills, prescriptions and medical supplies as well as food and clothing.
Those who have been close to its mission for the last half a century say it’s God’s “answer to the prayer of the poor.”
To give thanks, Sister Visitor will celebrate its anniversary — and invites the public to join in — on Aug. 7 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The center will host a block party at 23rd and West Market streets. Participants will be treated to free food, music, kids’ activities and health screenings.
The sisters moved into the current location, at 2235 West Market, some 30 years ago, said Sister Intravia, who became the director in 2011.
In 2007, 3,500 square feet were added to the building, which used to be a shoe store, she said.
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Rebecca Miles, the center’s second director, said in a recent interview that she always believed the center was the “answer to the prayer of the poor.”
“It’s God’s work. It’s how he answers the prayer of the poor. It’s one of the things I always said and felt to this day,” said Sister Miles, who served at the center from 1991 to 2011, when she retired.
Sister Miles said there were many instances when she and the other sisters prayed for what the center needed for its clients. She recalled one Christmas season when the center ran out of toys, but many clients still needed gifts for their children.
She said one of the other sisters asked “ ‘What are we going to do?’ ”
Sister Miles’ answer: “Just go home and pray.”
The following day, a donor called to inquire if the center needed toys. Sister Miles said they were expecting a few new toys, but the donor arrived in an 18-wheel truck with boxes of toys.
“We had toys for that Christmas and the following Christmas. We talked about that for years,” she said.
On another occasion, a client suffering from cancer needed an electric blanket. Soon after, the center received a donation of electric blankets.
“The people who needed it prayed and we were just the middlemen,” said Sister Miles.
Some people call the center’s work a “bandaid approach,” she said. “Sometimes you need a bandaid until you can change the system.”
People in need often need a bandaid in addition to systemic change, according to Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph Grace Simpson, who served at the center for 30 years. In that time she came to understand that the “poor needed both a handout and a hand up,” she said.
Sister Simpson served as a caseworker and also coordinated visits to the homebound elderly.
“Working face-to-face with the poor gave me the opportunity to spend time with them, listening to their stories and assisting them in their need,” said Sister Simpson. “Seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor led me to give them both respect and dignity.”
Victoria Wright, a long-time client of the Sister Visitor Center, said she is always treated with respect when she comes to the center for assistance. She learned of the center years ago, she said. Her mother needed help when the family first moved to Louisville from Owensboro.
The center was there for her then and it’s here for her now that she has her own family, she said. The mother of four now comes to the center for food and clothing.
“They never make you feel like you’re less of a person. They don’t make me feel as if this is something to be ashamed of,” said Wright. “Everyone here is really friendly.”
Wright said she wants individuals who are needy to know, “It’s OK to reach out and ask somebody for help. Don’t just struggle alone.”
And many are willing to answer that call for help.
Sister Intravia said the parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville are “very generous.”
“We couldn’t survive without the donation of food, clothing, toiletries and money,” she said.
Neither could the center survive without its volunteers — 25 of them who serve weekly. They help the center serve more than 300 households per month.
“The need is becoming greater and greater,” said Sister Intravia.
Over the years, the clientele has changed as well.
She noted that the center now serves individuals who are re-entering the community after incarceration. The center also sees many homeless clients, she said.
Mary Schmidt, Lenore Karem, Linda Knabel and Jo Ann Miller are four volunteers who’ve been serving at the center for many years.
They enjoy serving and said they have a good time together. On a hot July day last week, the women talked and laughed as they sorted, folded and hung clothing in the center’s storage room.
Karem, a member of St. Michael Church who’s been volunteering at the center for 30 years, said she lives in the East End, but sees the need of the people in the West End.
“They take good care of people,” said Karem of the center’s staff and volunteers. “Everyone is respected and that’s a good thing.
Knabel, a member of St. Bartholomew Church, said “I’ve volunteered at other places where I wasn’t treated well. I’m grateful that they continuously let us know we’re appreciated.”
Schmidt, a member of St. Stephen Martyr Church, said she plans on serving at the Sister Visitor Center until “I go to heaven.”