Mercy Center founder’s life to be honored at Mar. 15 fundraiser
Sister Mary Ann Dirr used to keep the coffee piping hot in the small gathering room at Mercy Center on 145th St. and Willis Avenue, for neighborhood mothers who trickled in for their morning English classes after dropping their kids off at daycare. Sister Mary Ann, a Sister of Mercy, always welcomed the women with a smile and a mug.
“Catherine McAuley, [who founded the Sisters of Mercy] always said, ‘Take care of people, and be sure they have a comfortable cup of tea.’ At Mercy Center, we have a cup of coffee too,” said Alba Torres, 60, a community worker who knew Sister Mary Ann well. “It’s the spirit of mercy. Sister Mary Ann lived that. She embodied that spirit.”
The warmth of the coffee—and her welcoming hands—was how people remembered the late nun whose tenacity lifted her community, especially its women, through Mercy Center, the nonprofit she started 27 years ago from a classroom at St. Pius V Church in Mott Haven.
Rooted in the Sisters of Mercy’s vow of service, Mercy Center sets its sights on impoverished and low-income immigrant families through “community and transformation.” The center provides classes in computer literacy, English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), workforce development, and youth and immigration services, as well as a safe and welcoming space for residents.
“We strive for hospitality. It comes from the transforming of the people’s lives we serve,” said executive director Stephen Stritch. “The sense of community that exists here was nurtured and built by Mary Ann.”
The idea for a center began when Sister Mary Ann came to Mott Haven to serve as a pastoral associate at St. Pius V in the mid-’80s. She provided counseling services for mothers and children, sensing a need to empower the women.
Torres and Maria Mercado were among those women. Both understood the neighborhood’s challenges. They met Sister Mary Ann through parenting classes, and were later recruited to help her promote and find funding for the growing needs of the new Mercy Center.
Mercy Center offers free adult education classes, and school and family programs that are funded through a combination of federal grants, private donations, and foundational and corporate support. Over the years, Sister Mary Ann brought on more volunteer social workers, staff and teachers to help an expanding array of programs and services.
“She would go to the precinct and the courts with people,” Torres recalled. “She would visit the homes of those struggling with domestic violence. She would say, ‘I am with you, don’t worry.’ And you would feel strong, because Sister Mary Ann was there.”
Social worker Catherine Loredo recalled a time Sister Mary Ann joined local protests against smokestack pollution and gang violence. She didn’t let anything scare or stand in her way, Loredo said.
“I call the Sisters of Mercy the radicals, the agitators,” said Loredo, 55. “She encouraged us to go and speak from the heart—and things would happen.”
Mercado, 59, remembers how she retreated after her husband passed away. Sister Mary Ann encouraged her to go back to school. Mercado now leads spirituality classes for women.
“She taught me not to be afraid,” said Mercado. “I owe all of that to her.”
Classes at the center continued to grow, with ESOL serving for many as an entry point to other programs. With a budget in place, a new building was opened in 1998, after St. Pius V closed.
After Sister Mary Ann retired in the early 2000s to assist behind the scenes, Mary Galeone was named co-director, along with Sister Mary Ann’s brother, Joseph. Mercy Center continued to expand its programs for Bronxites in need, men included.
In 2015, a second location was added at the College of New Rochelle in The Hub, where immigration classes are held through the center’s Office for New Americans.
Secretary Sylvia Gonzalez said that Mercy Center grew “organically,” but not by accident. Sister Mary Ann’s assessment of needs kept things running, she said.
“She was a starter, but she was also a sustainer,” said Gonzalez, 52. “She was in pain, but always with a smile on her face. She saw a redemptive value in her suffering—always offering it up for others.”
Sister Mary Ann passed away at White Plains Hospital on February 1, at 74. Although she suffered from lupus and osteoporosis for years, colleagues, family members, and other Sisters said her commitment and liveliness never waned.
“She faced every day with pain and dignity, great vision and leadership,” said Galeone.
“She courageously responded to her call, as it morphed into different expressions at different times in her life,” said her brother, Joe. “She was #MeToo long before its time.”
A ‘Transforming Lives’ annual fundraising gala and auction will be held on Thursday, March 15, recognizing the Mercy Center’s achievements, and honoring Sister Mary Ann’s legacy.