Sister Mary Scullion, RSM

Herman Mattleman
Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown

A member of the Sisters of Mercy, whose vows include caring for the poor, sick and uneducated, Sister Mary Scullion received the 1991 Philadelphia Award for her steadfast service to the homeless in Philadelphia. Local officials called her “the good sister” and “a gift to Philadelphia,” while women helped by Scullion said, “She never gives up on you.” and “She’s fought so hard for us.”

S he joined the Sisters of Mercy at age 19, and eventually began working at Mercy Hospice, a women’s shelter operated by the Sisters. For Scullion, this “was the most profound experience I ever had of God. There’s no pretense. It’s true. It’s real.”

Scullion requested that her mandatory yearly retreat be spent on the streets of Philadelphia, instead of in the Sisters’ motherhouse. She spent the week as a homeless woman, sleeping wherever possible, utilizing public restrooms, and scrounging for food. Of her experience, Scullion said, “It was the hardest thing I ever did. [I returned] sick as a dog, really depleted.” But she learned first-hand what it meant to be homeless, and developed a sense of urgency to address the problem.

Committed to ending homelessness, Scullion co-founded Woman of Hope in 1985, the OutreachCoordinationCenter in 1988, and Project HOME (Housing, Opportunity for Employment, Medical Care, Education) in 1989. Serving mentally ill homeless women, Woman of Hope provides permanent residences and support services. The OutreachCoordinationCenter integrates the services of public and private agencies to more effectively administer help to the chronically homeless. Project HOME provides affordable housing, job training and health care to homeless and low-income individuals. More than 95 percent of those helped by Project HOME have avoided a return to homelessness, “a success rate [making] the program a model for dozens of other U.S. cities.”

Although her work on the streets is legendary, Scullion’s work in the political arena is equally significant. Her efforts led to the right of homeless persons to vote, and also resulted in a “landmark federal court decision [affecting] the fair housing rights of persons with disabilities.” She believes that homeless policy should shift from managing homelessness via shelters and emergency services, to supporting permanent, affordable housing and job training programs. Scullion “can’t accept that our government can pour billions of dollars into failing corporations… and not be able to fund permanent supportive housing which not only saves lives [but eventually] money.”

In her service to the homeless, Scullion has been arrested for trespassing while providing food for those sheltering at 30th Street Station. She has “crawled down manholes and into the darkest alleys” to invite homeless individuals to shelters. Ed Rendell called her “Philadelphia’s Joan of Arc,” “because so many people want to burn her at the stake” for her aggressive advocacy. Perhaps the reason for all her efforts is found in Scullion’s belief: “Whatever affects one directly affects all of us indirectly. If there is homelessness in our society … we are all diminished.”

Tamara A. Measler

Sources: Milford Prewitt, “When a Broken Man Joined with Angry Nuns,” Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 19, 1984; Ginny Wiegand, “Sister Scullion in the Spotlight,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1992; Sara Rimer, “First Steps to Reclaim Streets are Precise, Joyful, Loud,” New York Times, Jan.12, 1998; “Program Summary for Sister Mary Scullion Executive Director, Project HOME Eisenhower Fellowship to Central Europe and Italy USA Program – 2002,”; Gloria Campisi, “Project’s for poor, single women,” Philadelphia Daily News, Sept. 12, 2003; Gloria A. Hoffner, “A Vocal Advocate for Homeless,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 10, 2005; Elizabeth Gilbert, “Sister Mary Scullion,” Time Magazine, April 30, 2009; Gloria Campisi, “Sister Mary Scullion named a ‘Most Influential’ by Time,” Philadelphia Daily News, May 1, 2009; Jennifer Lin, “Mary of Mercy,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 2010; “Sister Mary Scullion, Executive Director and President,”;