The Sister’s Room

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Sister Mary Paul (left) and Sister Geraldine (right). Courtesy of The Center for Family Life.
Sister Mary Paul (left) and Sister Geraldine (right). Photo courtesy of The Center for Family Life.

By Stefanos Chen

The stairs leading to the fourth floor of the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park are winding and narrow, which is why Sister Mary Paul Janchill used the elevator in her later years. By the time you reach the fourth floor entrance, you can already smell her smell, says a staff member that knew her. To the uninitiated, the scent is imperceptible.

Sister Mary Paul died in May at the age of 88 from an apparent heart attack. She was a tiny woman, even before her back began to bend gently with age. Her death came nine years after the death of Sister Geraldine Tobia, with whom she created the center, which over 30 years transformed a great deal of thinking about the state’s role in helping children whose parents have given them up to foster care, but who nonetheless remain a part of their lives.

It is not an easy model to replicate. Both Mary Paul and Geraldine held advanced degrees and social work and lived on the premises, in a suite of sparsely furnished rooms on the fourth floor above the lobby. While their order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, encouraged the pair to live with other nuns, they insisted on staying in Sunset Park.

At the top of the stairs is an entrance to a white corridor of rooms, the doors of which are all shut. The staff member opens the door to a room numbered 41, but it won’t swing open all the way—a large cardboard box blocks the egress. This was her living room, he says, as he looks about the blank canvass-covered walls. The room is comparable in size to a small study, with just enough space for a bookcase and armoire. He points to where things used to be.

This is where we watched Obama’s inauguration,” he says in the direction of boxes labelled “Girls Coats” for an upcoming clothing drive. She would often entertain guests in the room, discussing politics and policy, two of her favorite subjects, until around 10 pm, when the center closes its doors to the public and she would retire to her spartan bedroom.

In the corner is a stack of paintings and awards that Sister Mary Paul had accumulated in the 30 years that this was her home. Impressions of oceans and flowerbeds and rivers are interspersed with heavy brass plaques for years of public service. Most of her belongings—the habit she donned daily, the stacks of critical texts, the reams of typewritten letters —have already been packed in boxes, stored away in a distant Manhattan annex.

Yet the room is not entirely bare. In the spots where picture frames used to hang, grey rectangles outline the wall like a photographic negative. Further to the left, a cruciform shadow shrouds an unused nail in the wall. There are three windows—two in the back that frame a row of brick houses, and another obscured by a plastic-covered air conditioner coated with dust; the plastic crinkles in the breeze.

We’re going to utilize this space for different programs,” he says in a quiet voice, partly out of reverence, but partly because the adjoining rooms are already in use as offices. The sound of youthful laughter rises from the third floor hallway as the staff member mentions a new cooking course that will convert the sisters’ kitchen into an East-Asian culinary lab. “Her life was materially spare, but spiritually rich,” he says on the walk back to the lobby.

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