For the Degree Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
Our honoree has been called a “focused leader” with a vision, whose “primary thrust was always toward the poor.” She is the president and CEO of an organization with a multimillion dollar budget. The organization she shepherds is not a Fortune 500 company, although those she serves can rightly be considered the fortunate ones. Their number each year is not 500; it is 500 multiplied more than 100 times. Our honoree modestly describes herself as a repair shop operator who runs “a place for second chances, a place which offers opportunity to kids to start over, to try again to trust adults, to believe in themselves, to have hope for the future, to be in touch with a God who loves them and to whom they belong in a special way.” The leader of Covenant House confesses to always having had a soft spot in her heart for children; her tenderness is surpassed only by her tough and relentless advocacy on their behalf. Last year she traveled to Washington nine times to meet with senators about legislation that would provide continuing foster care for children until they reached age 21.
Sister Mary Rose McGeady was born on January 28, 1928, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, the second of Catherine and Joseph McGeady’s three children. Her family moved to Washington, D.C., where she attended parochial schools. As a teenager she volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum, a place well known to many Catholic University student volunteers.
Sister McGeady received her secondary education from Immaculate Conception Academy, administered by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Upon graduation at age 18, she entered the Daughters’ religious community. There she made the three vows common to women religious – obedience, chastity and poverty – and added a fourth vow specific to her order – to serve the poor.
She enrolled in Boston’s Emmanuel College, graduating with a sociology degree. That was followed by a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Fordham University and doctoral work in psychology at Fordham and the University of Massachusetts.
Sister McGeady embarked on a career of service to the needy at Nazareth Child Care Center in Boston, where the people she sought to help were homeless and disturbed children and their families. She served as executive director of the Astor Home and Clinic for Children in Rhinebeck, New York, a treatment center for disturbed children and youth. Later she worked for Brooklyn Catholic Charities, becoming its executive director of mental health services at a time when the mentally ill were being deinstitutionalized, many with nowhere to go.
In 1981 Sister McGeady became Provincial of the Northeast Province of the Daughters of Charity. For six years she oversaw the work of more than 300 religious in nine hospitals, 17 schools and five childcare agencies. After six years she returned to the Brooklyn Diocese as associate director of Catholic Charities where she administered more than 80 programs and managed a staff of 800 with a budget of $40 million.
In 1991 she accepted the greatest challenge of her career. Covenant House, an acclaimed New York-based international childcare agency, was so severely weakened by scandal and financial mismanagement that its very existence was in doubt. She took on the task of rebuilding the reputation of an organization that had been highly respected for its work with street kids – victims of neglect, abuse and molestation. She faced the financial challenge of a debt that had ballooned to $38 million as donations plunged in the wake of the scandal.
When Sister McGeady arrived at Covenant House, it operated in 12 cities. Today, that number has grown to 21. In 2001, 66,000 children in the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua were served by Covenant House. Under her leadership, new programs have been introduced, such as job training and placement for older adolescents and an apartment program that helps young people re-establish themselves in their local community. Thanks to her dedication, energy and administrative skills, the reputation and effectiveness of Covenant House have been fully restored.
Through her work, Sister McGeady has acquired the wisdom that comes from witnessing much human suffering and – in the cases where that suffering is alleviated or ended – much human joy. For more than four decades, she has embodied the ideal that our national university has affirmed for itself and its students, faculty and staff ever since its founding – to be in service to Church and nation. Sister McGeady’s boundless empathy reminds us that we are all called to live our lives in a humane way, especially to do whatever is necessary for the least of our brothers and sisters. Her consummate organizational skills as president and chief executive officer instruct us of the need to marry good intentions with hard work to achieve great ends.
For all these reasons, The Catholic University of America is pleased to bestow upon Sister Mary Rose McGeady the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Given at Washington, District of Columbia
May seventeenth, two thousand and three