By Timothy K. Kinsella, Ph.D., head of the History Department and Director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at Ursuline College.
Sister Henrietta, CSA (1902-1983), serves as a wonderful example of an individual going outside of herself, in this case to help the invisible poor in the Hough area, an inner city neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. Prior to her work in Hough, she had already developed intellectual and administrative skills through her past positions in hospital work, and combined them with her heart’s yearning of service to the poor.
Marie Gorris, Sister Henrietta’s baptismal name, entered the Sisters of Charity in 1925 shortly after receiving an R.N .degree from Canton’s Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. She then worked at Mercy Hospital and Timken Mercy Medical Center between 1928 and 1962. Examples of her many titles include; night supervisor, supervisor of surgery, head administrator, supervisor of construction, and fundraiser. These skills would later be of invaluable help in Hough.
Upon her retirement from hospital work, the Canton Repository wrote that her administration “has been marked by her keen intelligence, dynamic and tireless energy, and a pair of sparking eyes that every employee, most patients and all friends of the hospital learned to admire. (Wolf 86).
Sr. Henrietta returned to her native Cleveland in 1962 and was assigned to St. Vincent Charity Hospital as director of nursing service until 1965. Yet she believed that she had a calling to help the poor and had hoped to go to Africa as a missionary. Through a confluence of events, including the presence of Father Albert Koklowsky (“the slum priest”), Sr. Henrietta began working as director of the Our Lady of Fatima Mission Center in Hough from 1965 to 1983.
A quick side note. Our Lady of Fatima Parish was established in 1949 to serve an Eastern European and Appalachian population. The parish purchased a building on Lexington Avenue and made it into a church, with the first mass in October 1950. During the fifties Hough experienced demographic changes. Many original members left the area. Puerto Rican immigrants settled in the neighborhood and became members of the parish. By the late fifties, most Hough residents were African American and non-Catholic. In August 1963 the parish received Father Koklowsky as its pastor (he served until 1969). The Sisters of Charity opened a mission at the parish in April 1965. S. Henrietta would serve as the director.
Our Lady of Fatima Mission resulted in part from Father Koklowsky’s column of March 1965 in the Universe Bulletin. He wrote of the ghetto life there, where “my people and I move in a nightmare, in a festering junkyard.” He saw “a desperate people, a people without hope,” and added that “all of this matters little to the world outside. We are numbers, cases, questionnaires (1,2).”
As mission director, S. Henrietta set out to work. She began to thoroughly clean the abandoned apartment planned for the mission center. At the same time she began going door to door to meet the Hough area residents and to let them know she was there to help.
Uprisings in the Hough area broke out during the final stages of building the mission center. On the night of July 19, 1966, the first of numerous fires occurred during the week long uprising. S. Henrietta feared that the mission center would face the same fate. One policeman compared Hough to London during the German bombings in World War II. Military vehicles used by the National Guard began to line the streets. S. Henrietta walked throughout the neighborhood talking with residents and trying to calm their fears. She helped those who lost property in the fires by finding shelter as well as providing clothes and food.
After a week of returning some semblance of order the National Guard pulled out its 1,700 troops. It was clear, however, that something was terribly wrong. The invisible poor did not wish to stay invisible and used different strategies to attain this end. Uprisings spread in cities throughout the country. S. Henrietta reassumed her efforts to help those left behind.
Fortunately, the mission center escaped burning. S. Henrietta dedicated the Our Lady of Fatima Mission Center on August 14, 1966, only a few weeks after the uprisings. Through the presence of “The White Tornado” (one of S. Henrietta’s nicknames), the Catholic Church became involved in direct social action to meet real, pressing needs of the community.
During these uprisings (18-24 July 1966), S. Henrietta commuted from St. Vincent but in 1967 moved to the mission center. In her first report after her relocation, she referred to Hough as one of the worst ghettoes in the U.S. She noted that there were 1,500 families in the area. Eighty percent were on welfare or Aid to the Aged; 45 percent were fatherless; 90 percent were African-American; and the remaining 10 percent were American Indians and Hispanics. (14). Here was a concentration of the invisible poor.
S. Henrietta attacked poverty through many fronts, from providing material items such as food, furniture and clothing to education, housing, employment and job training, to health services.
She saw herself as a teacher and a help mate but insisted that residents take charge of their own lives. To reach that end, she drew together volunteers from the neighborhood and suburbs. Caridad (Charity and Responsibility in Deed and Duty) was established to care for personal and family needs. FAMICOS (Family Cooperators) focused on housing needs. The Famicos Foundation purchased and refurbished homes to sell them to families unable to obtain credit. To finance her work, S. Henrietta relied on donations. Her self-help approach was important in gaining support.
S. Henrietta also introduced basic health care practices. Nurses and other volunteers went to the homes of the poor to help with proper sanitary habits as a means of preventing disease. She also established basic health care programs in nutrition and critical areas of maternity and child care.
She started each morning with mass. Prayer during the day involved working with the poor. S. Henrietta inspired the poor with a vision of what a neighborhood could be (25). With her co-worker, S. Bertha Cross (worth a story in her own right), she wrote that as Sisters of Charity, “we hope that in our little way we have made God’s chosen ones, His poor, know that we care.”
S. Henrietta certainly did—to the day of her death and through memories of her tireless efforts.
See Wolff, Robert C. Sister Henrietta of Hough-She Reclaimed a Cleveland Slum. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990. Print.