“She’s always been there to help us”


Early on a cool, hazy Friday morning, people cross the street from McDonough Homes to stand in line at the garage located behind the large white house at Wheelock Parkway and Jackson Street in Saint Paul. Most are silent, keeping to themselves, though some engage in spirited conversations. After a while, the back door opens and Sister Kathleen Spencer steps outside, greeting everyone as she walks to the garage. When she opens the door, people slowly move into the garage where an assortment of bakery goods and other food awaits.

Each person who enters receives a warm hug and a smile from Sister Kathleen. Slowly they shuffle through the line, carefully choosing one item, then going back outside and back around to the end of the line, where they will wait until it is their turn to go through again. A few helpers continually re-stock the counters as they are emptied. Soon all of today’s food is given out, except for a brightly decorated cake with the word “Baby” on it. Sister asks, “ Does anyone have a new baby?” A shy young woman raises her hand and smiling, proudly steps over to collect the cake.

Sister Kathleen comes from a working class family. Her father, Edward, worked for the Railway Express, and her mother, Therese, worked for Sagel Jewelry in downtown Saint Paul. The family lived in Irvine Park, and Sister attended Assumption Grade School. One of her teachers there was the legendary Sister Giovanni, who in later years ministered to the people at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish on the West Side. Sister Kathleen says that Sister Giovanni was a “tough” teacher, but says, “ I just absorbed her unconditional love.”

Describing herself as “good, but full of mischief,” Sister says her parents sent her to Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy in Mankato. She then entered the convent where she professed her first vows in 1958. She is celebrating her Golden Jubilee as a School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) this year.

After teaching in Catholic schools in Minnesota for over 20 years, Sister Kathleen went to New Ulm where she worked with Bishop Raymond Lucker. She set up and directed the Office for Social Concerns. Speaking of Bishop Lucker, she says,” He helped me understand what the mission of the church is all about.”

Sister Kathleen was invited to come to McDonough Homes in 1984 to do pastoral ministry.

“I was answering a call in my soul to be with economically poor people,” Sister Kathleen says. “I thought to myself that I would just try it. ” In answering the call, Sister set out on a mission of ministry that eventually led to the formation of the MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment.

The McDonough Organization with Respect and Equality for People (MORE) tries to “empower people of many races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds to live and work in peace.” Sister Kathleen emphasizes the fundamental concept of MORE that is,“ I came not to do for, but to be with” the people.

In June, she will retire from her work at the MORE School, leaving behind a legacy in the hundreds of residents whose spirituality has been nurtured at MORE.

One of the fondest dreams held by Sister Kathleen and her founding co-Director, Nancy Christianson was that “one of our own would be working here.” That dream is now fulfilled as Shoua Xiong a MORE alum, will co-direct the school along with Sister Stephanie Spandl.

McDonough Homes, in the North End neighborhood of Saint Paul, is the largest public housing site in Saint Paul with about 5,000 residents. In the beginning, Sister says, “It was a very violent time here. The residents, of many different cultures, were isolated from one another, and there was a great deal of animosity.” She spent her time walking around, listening, waiting to be invited in, waiting for people to ask for help.

In those days, the population at McDonough was comprised of about 80% Southeast Asians, with African American and European Americans making up the rest. Today about half are Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants, while other residents include newly arrived immigrants from around the world, plus a small number of African Americans and European Americans.

Sister remembers getting together with newly arrived Hmong refugees in their apartment, sitting in a circle on the few chairs attempting conversation though neither spoke the others’ language.

Operating on the philosophy that ,“ We don’t have to be poor, we can learn, and be empowered, ” Sister says that MORE actually began in 1985 and was started by a group of single women who were African American and European American. They asked her to help them with what started out as a complaint group, later became a job training support group, and eventually turned into an employment group. The group called itself MORE because they said they needed more jobs, more money, and more self-respect.

In 1994, after outgrowing tiny quarters at McDonough, the group moved across the street and out of the project to a former drug house. Purchased with the financial help of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and grants, the house soon bustled with activity as classes and support groups grew in numbers. By 2001, the program was bursting at the seams, and a major addition was built by 230 members of the Saint Paul Building Trades who volunteered their services.

The MORE School has many facets including a focus on Adult Education, with English as a Second Language classes, life skills, GED, citizenship and college and high school tutoring. Over 800 people have become citizens after attending the citizenship classes. MORE is a member of the Saint Paul Literacy Consortium. All of its twelve teachers are qualified and paid. Volunteers assist with tutoring and mentoring. Classes are held four days a week, in three separate sessions each day. 90 people come to classes each week, with over 200 people served every school year.

People from many different cultures asking, “Sister, will you teach me?” led to the founding of the school. Sister Kathleen has been instrumental in leading the formation of the MORE School, and is quick to point out that “There is not one thing that was started here that I did, it was all through invitation. … We respond to the needs – not what we think they need, but what they say they need.”

Students at the school also learn how to register to vote, how to work for change in unjust systems, and to organize around issues that affect their lives like immigration reform. Through the “The Miracle of the Garage Ministry,” donated household goods, food and clothing are provided to those in need. The miracle is that the donations just started coming in. No one at MORE has ever asked for any contributions of food or other goods.

As she pauses for a moment, Sister says of her experience at MORE,“ I have been changed, and continue to be changed every day.” The school itself remains a testament to her creative energy, her willingness to take the risks, and in the end her hearty “Thank you, Jesus!” every time her prayers are answered.

Shelley Nute , a resident of McDonough , has attended the MORE School. She sums up what many of the residents are saying, “ I don’t want her to leave. She’s so great for us. Her presence is beautiful. We’re grateful God brought her into our life…she’s always been there to help us.”

Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of St. Paul, lives in the North End neighborhood. Now working as a freelance writer, Mary is retired from the St. Paul Public Schools. She also served as editor of the North End News, a community newspaper.