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Spotlight Report

'Saint' wants answers

Archdiocese sells nun's South End respite for poor

By Gloria Negri, Globe Staff, 10/27/2003

For 32 years, Sister Eustace Caggiano has been dispensing clothing, food, and furniture to the poor, the homeless, and new immigrants out of the basement of the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center in the South End.

As word of her work spread, people came to call her "The Saint of the South End," a designation 90-year-old Sister Eustace would be the first to decline.

"I am just doing God's work," she will tell you without interrupting her measurement of a suit for a homeless man or packing a bag of groceries for a family.

Several weeks ago, Sister Eustace was stunned to learn from a neighborhood newspaper that the resource center, from which she has fed and clothed thousands for decades, had been sold by the Archdiocese of Boston to a private developer. She had not been told.

Public records show the archdiocese sold the property, at 1359-1367 Washington St., to PSB Investments LLC in July for $2.14 million.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said it was not yet certain whether the archdiocese would use the money to help pay for the $85 million settlement agreement that it made with more than 500 alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy, or to pay off other church debts.

Whatever is done, "the resource center is not going to disappear," Coyne said, promising that alternative quarters will be found.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Sean P. McGrath, of PSB Investments, said he does not have firm plans for the building. He is working closely with the Boston Redevelopment Authority "and the community in developing plans for the appropriate use for the property," he said, and added that he was not sure what will become of the resource center.

None of this reassured Sister Eustace, who said Friday that she was still uninformed about the sale and the center's future. "Are we serving a building or serving people?" she asked.

Petite and feisty when it comes to protecting the needy who depend on her, Sister Eustace was not only upset that she had not been informed of the sale, but that the headline on the newspaper article referred to the center as "an eyesore."

How, she wanted to know, could the word "eyesore" apply to a building that was "a service for the church," that had fed so many, clothed so many, and furnished so many apartments with donated new mattresses and furniture that she stored in its upper floors?

She said there's no place in the area for her center to move, and without it thousands of immigrants and poor people would be lost.

Every morning, scores of people line up before the center opens, waiting for their share of the day-old bread donated by area stores and transported free for the past 17 years by the staff of the RoJo Co. of Norwood.

RoJo's owner, who prefers not to be named, volunteered at the center while a student at Cathedral High School and never forgot Sister Eustace's work. "The most important thing here is bread," Sister Eustace said yesterday. "We give away hundreds of loaves a day. That will be the greatest loss here."

Sister Eustace said she doesn't want to criticize the archdiocese. "I am defending it for all the good programs it made possible to come out of this building," she said.

The resource center was started as the Cardinal Cushing Spanish-Speaking Center in the 1960s by the late Rev. Ernest T. Serino to accommodate the first local Cuban refugees.

Father Serino recruited Sister Eustace to the center in 1972, and she quickly learned Spanish. As each new wave of immigrants arrived from Vietnam, Russia, Somalia, and other places, Sister Eustace didn't know their language. But she spoke to them, those who know her said, through the language of love.

On the sale of the building, Sister Eustace said she felt she had to speak out. "I feel I have to represent them," she said, looking out over a room filled with people in need. "If this closes, what will happen?"

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