House of Mercy ends ties with founder

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The House of Mercy board has voted to end its relationship with founder and spiritual director Sister Grace Miller and with her longtime associate and fellow Catholic nun, House of Mercy guest services coordinator Sister Rita Lewis.

The board’s move, announced Friday, comes just shy of two months after the Aug. 7 stabbing death of a sleeping resident and the critical injury of another resident at the hands of a third resident.

Sister Grace Miller

Sister Grace did not immediately respond to the Rochester Beacon’s request for comment.

A 76-bed homeless shelter located at 285 Ormond St., the House of Mercy has been closed since the stabbing incident, leaving a conspicuous hole in the city’s safety net.

House of Mercy board chair Ed Hourihan Jr. says the board has set a Nov. 1 target date for reopening the shelter. The House of Mercy normally provides shelter, meals and connection to social service agencies for some 4,000 individuals a month.

“We’re shooting for the first of November, but if we can manage it sooner, we’ll open sooner,” Hourihan says. “We’d like to get it up and running before cold weather sets in.”

Sister Grace, 86, founded the House of Mercy in 1985 and virtually single-handedly guided its growth over the following decades.

Begun as $300,000-a-year organization located in a modest, single-family home in Rochester’s Northeast section, the House of Mercy twice relocated to larger quarters. It is now the city’s largest organization of its type and has a more than $2 million budget. Sister Rita long worked at Sister Grace’s side.

The 15-member board’s unanimous vote to cut ties with the two nuns this week “was extremely difficult to make, one of the hardest I’ve ever made personally,” Hourihan says.

The vote followed on the board’s work since August on a plan to restructure the shelter’s operations and improve security. It also followed an independent investigation commissioned by the board and conducted by the Harris Beach law firm, Hourihan adds.

The House of Mercy states its mission as “(providing) hope, healing, compassionate care, unconditional love and a sense of community. We serve the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable among us—the mentally ill, the alcohol and drug addicted, the lonely, the broken, the imprisoned and the unwanted. We welcome everyone without judgment.”

The August attack sorely tested those ideals.

In addition to the probe privately ordered by the shelter’s board, the state agency overseeing the such facilities, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, investigated the stabbing incident.

Police identified the attacker as Nathaniel Jeanpierre III, a 40-year-old House of Mercy resident, who, police reported at the time, surrendered without incident. Police described the attack as unprovoked.

Jeanpierre was held without bail and indicted on charges of second-degree murder, second-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault. He has pleaded not guilty and has not yet gone to trial. 

For some months before the stabbing incident, relations between the board and Sister Grace had been strained. In March, the board installed an executive director to help manage the 20-employee shelter, a move Sister Grace viewed with suspicion.

The new director, Tammy Butler, came with extensive experience in social services. Still, Sister Grace saw Butler not as a helper but as an interloper hired to replace her and push her out.

Remarking on Butler’s arrival, the nun told a reporter in March that “‘we got somebody better,’ that’s how they’re making me feel.”

Not so, insists Hourihan. Until the August incident and even in its immediate aftermath, pushing Sister Grace out “was the farthest thing from our minds. She is our founder.”

Said Butler in a statement: “The Board, myself, and our staff are fully committed to providing hope, healing, compassionate care, unconditional love, and a sense of community for our guests. The legacy of Sister Grace will endure through our inspired commitment to the poorest citizens of our city.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Some of the Beacon’s co-founders worked at RBJ. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

4 thoughts on “House of Mercy ends ties with founder

  1. Sister Grace has contributed much to the homeless plight during her life time. However, she really needed a wake up call about reality.

  2. “we’d like to get it up and running before the cold weather sets in”…says the person with zero experience of poverty and homelessness. that quote reads like a pull. it’s cold at night now. October is cold. you wake up outside soaked with dew and freezing. open the damn shelter now.

  3. There was no serious problem all the time Sister Grace was the director. She built this shelter out of nothing and should have continued being the director as long as she wanted to. Replacing her with Tammy was obviously a mistake. The violence occurred during Tammy’s watch. She is the person who should be fired not Sister Grace. It is also very unfortunate that House of Mercy will be closed until November. It gets very cold and rainy this time of year and no one should be left homeless on the street. But obviously, the people making these decisions don’t care.

  4. Sister Grace and Sister Rita have played an intricate part in my twin brother’s life who has passed on to be with the Lord. The love and compassion that they both have shown to my family in our time of need. These two women just didn’t stand by their Mission Statement but they lived it! They are a Beacon of light, not just to the poor and homeless but to anyone they encountered.

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