That experience in the '70s marked the beginning of her life's mission. It led to the creation, with Joan Dawson McConnon, of Project HOME. The internationally known agency has developed more than 600 housing units and helped more than 8,000 people get off the streets, kick their addictions, and find jobs and new housing.
Tomorrow, Project HOME will celebrate its 25th anniversary with the grand opening of the JBJ Soul Homes, a 55-unit apartment building on a triangle of land on Fairmount Avenue, between 15th and Broad streets, in Francisville.
The home, funded largely by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, is for formerly homeless men, women and children, and will house eight young people leaving foster care.
"We had no idea when we started that this was going to last," McConnon said of Project HOME, on Fairmount Avenue near 15th Street, in Francisville.
Project HOME not only helps homeless people get off the streets and into shelters, it also provides education, job training, opportunities to work and permanent housing, including home ownership.
Two women of faith
Sister Mary and McConnon were on separate paths aiding the homeless before they joined forces more than 25 years ago.
Since the 1970s, long before she made Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2009, before she was being sought out by a secretary of Housing and Urban Development who wanted a tour of Project HOME's housing developments, Sister Mary had been in the trenches feeding the homeless and bringing attention to the plight of homelessness.
For her efforts, she was arrested several times - but never convicted - for passing out food to the homeless at 30th Street Station; for taking over City Council; for protesting, along with the late Rev. Paul Washington, outside former Mayor Ed Rendell's City Hall office.
Each night, Sister Mary made the rounds, handing out food and blankets to the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia.
And each night the homeless men and women she encountered suggested that she and McConnon could work together.
"The men on the street told me about Joan," said Sister Mary, 60. "They said she was someone I should meet.
" 'She puts you to shame, Sister Mary,' " the nun said the men told her.
McConnon, now 54, had grown up in Springfield, Delaware County, and graduated from Cardinal O'Hara High School. After earning an accounting degree from Penn State in the early 1980s, she worked as an accountant for GTE and Corning Glass for six years. In the late '80s, she had returned to Philadelphia to enroll at Drexel, where she pursued a master's degree in taxation while helping the homeless at night.
"The dehumanization of people living in doorways and bathing in fountains, I thought it was really unacceptable," McConnon said.
Sister Mary had heard that McConnon was volunteering at night at the Mercy Hospice women's shelter, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, at 13th and Pine streets. One night, Sister Mary introduced herself.
The two began to work together in 1988 on a project called the Night Winter Coalition.
"This was a response to people dying on the street," said McConnon, the chief financial officer for Project HOME.
Working with a team of volunteers, including physicians, they would take to the streets to ask people to come in from the cold.
The first shelter
Later that year, they opened their first shelter, named for St. Katharine Drexel, in the swimming-pool locker room at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, on 17th Street near Catharine, in South Philadelphia.
"We had absolutely nothing that first winter," McConnon said. "It was as bare-bones as you could imagine.
"We had a microwave, and we cooked everything - breakfast, lunch and dinner - in that microwave.
"We didn't have a sink, so we'd take a hose off the washing machine to wash the dishes."
On Valentine's Day, they cut out hearts and wrote the men's names on them and put the hearts above their beds.
If they found out that someone had a birthday, they found a way to have a cake and celebrate. For some of the men, no one had celebrated their birthdays since they were teenagers, McConnon said.
"All of this is a manifestation of how we value people," she said.
The following year, the pair incorporated as Project HOME to obtain grants and other financing to continue their work.
Project HOME is born
HOME is an acronym for Housing, Opportunities for employment, Medical care and Education - all areas in which Project HOME strives to help.
"When we talk to people and ask what enabled them to come in [off the street], the one thing people said over and over again was that there was an open door as opposed to a closed door," Sister Mary said in an interview at the JBJ Soul Homes building.
"The more doors we can open for each other - giving people a hand up, more than a hand out - the better. And an opportunity is not a single thing. It has to be consistent and meaningful."
Sister Mary, who has walked side-by-side with millionaires as well as homeless folks, said that Project HOME's successes have resulted from treating both groups with equal humanity.
It is the "power of relationships" that matters, she said, adding that she learned that lesson from the late Sterling Hicks, a formerly homeless man.
"If people would walk by him and see him like a piece of dirt, then that's how he felt," she said. "He said people were his mirrors and he saw himself through other people's eyes.
"When people saw him as a human being, it was those relationships, many of them with strangers, that empowered him enough to get up and come inside.
"I'll never forget that. I think it's true for everyone."
McConnon, a married mother of three, said that helping the homeless is a matter of faith.
"Whatever you do to the least [of my brothers], you do to me," McConnon said, paraphrasing Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
"I believe that this is what people of faith are called to do."
She said she had no idea that she and Sister Mary would realize such success 25 years ago.
"We were responding to the needs of the men during that winter by starting a winter-emergency shelter, working with the city," she said.
Boosted by both public and private financing, Project HOME grew and grew, creating 600 housing units, Sister Mary said.
The housing opportunities include everything from safe havens - shelters for homeless people who are still living on the streets - to permanent residences with on-site staffers who offer support, to apartments and a home-ownership program for people who have gone through recovery, improved their education and gotten jobs and financial counseling to manage a home.
Along the way, Sister Mary did whatever it took to make the shelters successful. At one point, she lived at the Women of Hope shelter, at 12th and Lombard streets. Then, to pacify neighbors concerned about the opening of the St. Elizabeth shelter for men, near 23rd and Berks streets, she lived for eight years alongside the men, who were just coming off the streets.
Project HOME also operates the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs, in North Philadelphia, offering both adult-education and after-school programs for children and teens.
Next year, Project HOME expects to open a health-care center, the Stephen Klein Wellness Center, at 21st Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. It will move its current St. Elizabeth's Wellness Center to the new building, which will have doctors from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and a YMCA.
Sister Mary, who now lives in North Philadelphia near the Honickman Learning Center, has advised public officials at every level that ending homelessness requires more than short-term solutions such as focusing on shelters alone.
"Our mission grew and expanded over the years," she said, "not only to address the issue of people experiencing homelessness, but also with the long-term view of preventing homelessness."
On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN