By Sister Camille D’Arienzo
The year was 1994.
The place was the Convent of Mercy, 273 Willoughby Avenue, at that time the motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn, New York.
Banners on its side street, the busy Classon Avenue, proclaimed: “100 Years of Prayer and Presence.” Indeed, the enormous building had sheltered dozens of sisters who went out from there each day to teach in two local elementary schools, St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart, as well as in Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School. The sisters also visited those who were sick and homebound and ministered to men in the Raymond Street Jail. They had a poor hall where people came for food. Inside the convent they cared for young children, orphaned or referred by the courts. In time, however, only children hard to place because of their developmental disabilities remained.
But, by 1994, the neighborhood had undergone a transformation. The convent children were gone, many to group homes, and the building sheltered some sisters who worked in the area. In addition, it housed a community of retired sisters and offices of the congregational leadership team.
The banners raised a question. Prayer was ongoing in the beautiful convent chapel, but the presence was not felt in the changing neighborhood. In an effort to determine how to best meet the needs of a changing neighborhood, Sister Kathleen Quinn met with the local pastor, Father William Smith. Without hesitation he pointed to the neighborhood’s latchkey kids whose struggling parents, many from Mexico, worked long hours and had to leave their children to fend for themselves until their workday ended.
Long before Pope Francis came to Congress with a plea for compassionate care of immigrants seeking freedom and a better life for their families, the fledgling center in the heart of Brooklyn recognized and addressed that hardship. So did the larger Mercy community. After a few attempts to locate a suitable place for the center, they supported a decision to build a two-story building at the north end of the beautiful convent garden. Opening its doors in 1995, it quickly became a place where children from the public schools could receive homework help and enjoy supervised play and cultural opportunities.
Adults also were welcomed to learn English as a second language and computer skills. Many successfully received their GEDs in their native language.
Called the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center, the ministry continues today, offering “programs that empower families in this urban community to overcome negative influences that impact their well-being and self-sufficiency.”
The Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center is located in the heart of the Fort Greene/Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
Parents are a child's primary teachers.
Parents and teachers benefit from the caring support of an extended family. This support includes positive interaction with role models and mentors who have access to educational resources and vital social services.
Self-respect is crucial for one's social, spiritual and emotional development.
Good Communication skills increase independence and self-esteem.
Programs geared to effectively serve families require continuous restructuring to meet their changing needs and opportunities.