Sister Marie Sullivan, a noted worker for Atlanta’s homeless, dies at 90

Sister Marie Sullivan was a key driver in providing services to the homeless people in Atlanta.
Photo credit: Carol Patron

Credit: Carol Patron

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Sister Marie Sullivan was a key driver in providing services to the homeless people in Atlanta. Photo credit: Carol Patron

Credit: Carol Patron

She overhauled social services, pioneered United Way’s 2-1-1 referral system, and helped tens of thousands of struggling Atlantans become self-sufficient. But Sister Marie Sullivan is remembered as much for her joy as for the lives she changed.

Sullivan wore street clothes, and many who knew her from Braves games or Manual’s Tavern were surprised to learn she was a nun. She enjoyed sailing, riding in a convertible, drinking scotch, listening to Irish music, going to parties, and raising Bonsai trees.

“While walking on an inner-city street with Marie, I heard a person say, ‘Oh! There’s Sister Marie!’ It was said with such honor and gratitude — as one would speak of a saint. In a sense, she was the inner-city saint of Atlanta,” said Sister Patty Caraher, who shared a house with Sullivan over 20 years.

“She spoke the language of laughter,” Caraher said.

Sullivan, 90, died February 9 at St. Dominic Villa in Hazel Green, Wisconsin. She had Alzheimer’s Disease. She was buried February 11 in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Sister Marie Sullivan

Born in the South Side of Chicago in 1931, Sullivan was the youngest of three children of Irish immigrants. Her father owned a tavern where he was bartender; her mother was a fulltime homemaker.

“We would say the rosary every night, especially during the Second World War. My mother and dad from Ireland had a very deep faith, and I think I hold to their teaching,” Sullivan said in a 2009 interview with The Georgia Bulletin.

After graduating from Visitation Garden and High School in Chicago in 1949, she attended Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. She took final vows to become a nun in 1954. From 1951 to 1971, she taught and was a principal in Catholic schools outside of Georgia. She credited that experience with opening her eyes to disparities in access to social services.

After earning a master’s degree in social work and working in a Missouri social services agency, she came to Atlanta in 1983 as social ministry director of Christian Emergency Help Centers. Sullivan expanded programs, and the center was renamed in her honor in 1994. She served as director until 2010. Her programs were designed with a “hand up, not hand out” approach. Those needing financial help took money management classes, those needing food received nutrition education, those needing jobs met with career counselors.

“One of my big things is not to take the responsibility from the individual, but help them see the problem. I say to people, ‘I will help you. I won’t walk in front of you and I won’t walk behind you, I will stand next to you for you to be able to do it yourself,’” Sullivan told the Georgia Recorder.

While she did not coddle clients, her compassion was deep.

“What I’ve learned is that many people have a great faith. You and I couldn’t survive on the streets. I don’t know if I could have lived through some of the problems they have to live with,” she said.

Sullivan did not get overwhelmed by the enormity of their needs.

“Like everyone else, I have down times every so often. But one of the principles I use is, it’s God’s work, not my work. If it’s not going to work, I can’t fight God. If it is going to work, he is going to take care of it.”

The Sullivan Center, which merged in 2012 with the Catholic nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, helped launch other social service nonprofits. Among those are Midtown Assistance Center, providing emergency assistance to low-income working Atlantans; Doraville’s Caminar Latino, serving Latino families impacted by domestic violence; Buckhead Christian Ministry, a collaboration of 30 Atlanta area churches helping people and families in crisis; Bridge the Gap Project, based in Tucker, providing immigration legal assistance; and the now-defunct Achor Center that provided transitional housing for women with children.

In 1986, Sullivan started the first computerized database in Atlanta to track and connect social service agencies. That initiative became United Way’s 2-1-1 referral system.

She developed an urban gardening program that operated from 2009 to 2015. It had multiple gardens serving low-income people across DeKalb, Cobb, and Fulton counties.

Sullivan received over 45 awards for her work, including the Phoenix Award, the city of Atlanta’s highest honor. But friends say she was not interested in recognition.

“She loved life and she loved people. This is the story of the difference one person can make,” said friend and colleague Sheila Bissonnette, the former executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia.

Sullivan is survived by nieces and nephews, and by Dominican Sisters with whom she shared life for 70 years. Memorials may be made to Sinsinawa Dominicans, 585 County Road Z, Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, 53824-9701.

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