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October 25. 2012 12:11AM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: 'Manchester's own Mother Teresa' remembered


 

Sister Angie Whidden, founder of New Horizons Soup Kitchen, died last week. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Remember 1979? Blindfolded hostages in Iran, long lines at the gas pump, double-digit inflation.

The national economy was bad, and Manchester suffered as well. The Sisters of Mercy, who lived in a convent on Union Street, knew about bad times; a homeless man named Harvey was a regular on their doorstep.

Behind those doors lived Sister Angie Whidden, a graduate of Manchester High School Central who had joined the religious order and started her vocation teaching in Catholic schools in New Hampshire.

But she could not ignore Harvey and others like him. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, Sister Angie did what any nun would do. She prayed, along with fellow nuns, some family members and a sympathetic priest, the now deceased Msgr. Phil Kenney.

Prayer may not seem like a plausible solution for a social problem. (Imagine Barack Obama or Mitt Romney saying that their economic recovery plan consists of prayer.) But when someone — especially a nun — gets down on her knees and bows her head, what follows is inspiration, then determination, then action.

So Sister Angie and her prayer group convinced future-Mayor Bob Shaw to lend them a Winnebago RV. The budding activists started serving soup to the homeless in front of the Carpenter Center on Christmas Eve 1979.

New Horizons Soup Kitchen eventually followed along with a shelter and food pantry.

“She knew about the poor that she wanted to help, and she just did it. Whatever happened, happened,” said Sister Thomas Norris, a longtime friend of Sister Angie.

“We had no money, but we got along by the grace of God. He gave us the things we needed,” Sister Thomas said.

The spark Sister Angie ignited spread to Nashua and Concord, which turned to her for advice to open shelters, said Dick Shannon, a director at New Hampshire Catholic Charities who worked alongside her. He is now a deacon at Parish of the Transfiguration.

Nuns, Catholic activists such as Shannon and family members traded stories Monday about Sister Angie in the quiet reception area of a Windham nursing home. They gathered to pay their respects to Sister Angie, who died last week at 86.

Nearly all the mourners were elderly women, their bodies stooped with age but their faces marked with a calm dignity that comes from a lifetime of service to others.

If you follow news about the Catholic church, you know that American bishops, who develop a cult of personality among their faithful, haven't been getting along with nuns. (Community organizers, it seems, have fallen out of favor with the cassock and surplice crowd.)

There was no Catholic hierarchy on hand Monday. No bishop, former bishop or auxiliary bishop. Nor was the head of New Hampshire Catholic Charities present.

The only man with a collar was the Rev. Bruce Collard, the chaplain at the Warde Health Center, where Sister Angie lived her final years.

The only civic leaders were Charlie Sherman, the current director of New Horizons, and Bob Baines, who was Manchester mayor when Angie's Place — a woman's shelter named for Sister Angie — opened.

Sister Madonna Moran gave a brief eulogy. She said Sister Angie took to heart the teachings of Vatican II, which urged nuns and priests to venture outside the confines of their churches and schools.

She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. She protested the Vietnam War. She visited refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Photos showed her at the White House with Jimmy Carter.

She had her lighter moments; 12 years ago, she was grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Manchester.

Her inspiration came from Dorothy Day, the New York journalist and social activist who launched the Catholic Worker movement, which promotes caring for the poor and social justice.

Social justice may sound all well and good in theory, but Manchester residents did not take kindly to the idea of a soup kitchen and shelter in their neighborhoods. Shannon noted that some of the community groups that Sister Angie helped to form turned out to protest potential locations for a soup kitchen.

“Proponents of the move should climb off their moral soapbox,” the Union Leader, a supporter of the soup kitchen, opined in July 1983, after quoting Sister Angie.

Eventually, she was able to land a deal for the former Girls Club on Manchester Street. The Allard family (which her niece had married into) acquired the building, and a community campaign aided by businessmen, bankers and ministers of many faiths raised $500,000. New Horizons opened its doors six years after Sister Angie spooned out soup to the homeless.

“She had a way of pulling people together,” said her niece, Ann Allard, who helped out 32 Christmases ago. “We had good people in the group. They knew how to go out and get bankers and businessmen informed.”

Shannon noted that Sister Angie and Kenney insisted New Horizons be open to people who were intoxicated, a policy that holds to this day. And Shannon added that Sister Angie was never intimidated by the rough-edged men at New Horizons.

“She never had a problem with violence because of her peaceful ways,” Shannon said. “She was always gracious, always kind, a gentle spirit. She was Manchester's own Mother Teresa.”

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. You can reach him at mhayward@unionleader.com.

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