I first met Carolyn McNulty, the founder of Romero House, in the mid-1980s when she was running a soup kitchen and clothing depot on Water Street. As it turned out it was the building that my company had just purchased for our business. We continued to provide space to Carolyn so that she could continue “God’s work”. It didn’t take me long to learn that Romero House existed only through what Carolyn would call the “grace of God” and “extraordinary acts of kindness” from Saint John’s ordinary people.
Carolyn’s response, then and for decades was when it came to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable was simply, “I put my faith in God.”
Over the years I would drop by to see Carolyn and ask my standard question: “How are things going?” The reply was usually the same: “It’s a day-to-day struggle, but I have faith things will work out. Winters are the most critical; we need money and food to see us though the winter.” she would say. The sad commentary is that Saint John has experienced growth in a sector where we should have never seen as growth – poverty.
I don’t believe Carolyn ever intended to start a soup kitchen in 1982 when she began providing meals to those in need out of her house, but compassion, a calling and acts of kindness all have a way of taking a hold of you. Then, before she knew it there was a soup kitchen on Union Street feeding a few less fortunate, then on to Water Street to care for more and eventually, a dedicated facility built through the generosity of Saint John businesses and citizens at 649 Brunswick Dr. preparing meals for up to 300 people a day as well as providing thousands of household items to those down on their luck.
“We’re not here to ask questions or pass judgment,” Carolyn would say. “We’re here to feed those in need. Some people come in the morning and then back again before we close because it’s all they’ll get to eat for the day.”
Carolyn didn’t have much time for boards, committees or politicians for that matter. She didn’t have time to sit around playing the blame game. No time to spend days, months or years trying to figure whether it’s a federal, provincial or municipal responsibility to look after the disadvantaged. She had no time for ineffective bureaucratic structures and philosophical finger pointing.
“For God’s sake there are people in need,” she would say. Simple and to the point.
Some years ago during a ‘Who’s responsibility is it?’ committee meeting she told the room, “I don’t have time for this. When you figure it out let me know. People are hungry. I’m going to serve soup.”
She didn’t try to conceal her considerable frustration with what she called the “lack of action and common sense” from all levels of government, a frustration that would often give rise to expressions like “mad as hell” and “damn system.” Make no mistake, beyond these non-lady like superlatives was a deeply spiritual person. There are many who talk the talk; Carolyn McNulty walked the walk. During one of our meetings in her office I noticed one wall covered with pictures of her children and grandchildren and the other wall covered with recognition awards.
“I have recognition awards but no diplomas, I couldn’t afford the time to go to university,” she said. “I grew up with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. We were taught that you have a responsibility to be aware what was happening in you community, get involved and make a difference.” During that visit there was a polite interruption from one of the Romero House volunteers, a piece of paper was passed to Carolyn with a verbal request: “Can you make an appointment to see this girl? She needs help.” Of course she’ll see the girl.
Her tired smile said it all: “I’m getting too old for this, but the only way I will leave this place is feet first.” The last time I saw Carolyn I said I would like to drop by and give you a chance to tell your story. She smiled and with a wave of the hand she said;'”I don’t have time for that, I have work to do”.
Carolyn McNulty died this week, a great loss to her family and Saint John.
I believe Carolyn’s leap of faith was based on Matthew 25:35: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home.” Within the context of Saint John Carolyn McNulty was OUR Mother Teresa.
I am not religious or spiritual person but I believe if there is a God as Carolyn stands before him and is asked; “Carolyn, what did you do with what I gave you”? Before she can answer thousands of people; the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed and the destitute will step forward and answer on her behalf.
Rest well and in peace Carolyn, your work is done.
Donations of food, money, clothing and household items can be made in person to Romero House at 649 Brunswick Dr., by calling 642-7447, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org