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.

9 thoughts on “House of Mercy ends ties with founder

  1. I remember sister Grace and her brother who founded the House of Mercy everybody enjoyed them. Sister Grace help the people together in the community she is an angel from God who love people and is willing to help them anyway she can. I took care of her brother when he was in rehab at St Ann’s home he was a special person I enjoyed talking to him and listening to his sermons. Sister Grace is the House of Mercy.

  2. The Board of the House of Mercy seems to be pointing the finger for the tragic murder in early August at Sister Grace and Sister Rita despite the fact that Sister Grace was not the Executive Director at the time: she had been demoted to the largely honorary position of “spiritual advisor” in late winter, about six months before. She was also not the head of security, a member of the security staff nor a member of the board with oversight of security. Harry Truman once touted his sense of accountability with his famous line “the buck stops here.” It seems the Board is saying that the buck stops with the spiritual advisor. That’s not my idea of accountability.

  3. This board should be held accountable for its actions. When Ms Butler was appointed director, Sr. Grace was entirely unprepared for the news. I’m sure she’s a well-meaning person with a number of qualifications (but PhD in Leadership?), but what experience does she have in working with homeless individuals? For that matter, what experience do the board members have with the daily work at House of Mercy or with the needs and struggles of the people it serves?

    Board members should all be required to volunteer at House of Mercy, learning about those whose lives are affected by their decisions. Why were Sr. Grace and Sr. Rita fired? How many years have they run the place without the kind of tragedy that occurred recently? When people whose lives are continually on edge encounter each other, tensions can mount. Those who suffer mental illness are frequently unpredictable. Sr. Grace and Sr. Rita have been dealing with such issues for many years, defusing situations, offering advice and consolation, supporting behavior changes and more. They are and have been utterly professional and, yet, personal in their outreach, mentoring and care.

    Will Ms. Butler or board members be on site at 8 or 9pm when needed, as Sr. Grace and Sr. Rita have done? Will they have and show the sincere care for residents as Sr. Grace and Sr. Rita have done? House of Mercy has been a shelter for many years, serving those who have been turned away by other shelters in our community. It’s not a business. Everyone at House of Mercy – staff, volunteers, residents and visitors – can tell you that it’s a family.

  4. Sister Grace is doing Mother Teresa’s selfless work, longer than some board members have been alive. The board wants to run this like a business, with no compassion. Mother Teresa has many quotes, here are a few that the board might want to listen to:

    “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty”.
    “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.”
    “If you can’t feed a hundred, then feed just one.”

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. “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.

    • If the authorities had dealt with her as they should have long since a number of people would still be alive and you wouldn’t be out in the cold. As for the Board, how does it take a year or two to find a new executive director and what in the sam hill is a ph.d in leadership from Fisher that the new director has and how come they hired a new director who didn’t see to it that there was proper security nor did the Board and how can they be keeping on that new director now. The board, Butler, and for that matter the authorities who are allowing the place to reopen with them still in the picture rather than having them prosecuted are all derelict.

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

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