When Ursuline Sister Michele Ann Intravia completed her degree in special education and elementary education in 1983, she expected to be a teacher all of her life.
“I would have never dreamed when I entered the convent that I would be doing this sort of ministry,” she said about her 14 years at the Sister Visitor Center in Louisville, Ky., the last eight of which have been as operations manager and now director.
The Sister Visitor Center provides emergency help with food, clothing, medication, rent and utilities in one of the poorest sections of Louisville. This is its 50th year in operation, and it kicked off its anniversary celebration with a block party on Aug. 7, 2019.
“We want to let the people of the West End know how much we appreciate them,” Sister Michele said.
It was the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who began the Sister Visitor Center in 1969, after they saw children who they were teaching at St. Anthony School coming to school hungry and unkempt. When the sisters visited the homes of these children, they often found no food or running water, Sister Michele said. The Sister Visitor Center began as a way to meet those needs.
In 1991, the Sister Visitor Center went under the umbrella of Catholic Charities. As the need grew greater, it was decided that more people could be served if the people in need of assistance came to the office at 23rd and Market streets, Sister Michele said.
One the people who started the center was present at the block party, former priest Tony Heitzman, who was the pastor at nearby St. Charles Church in 1969. Along with Charlie Mackin and the late Sister of Charity Janet Dougherty, they began at St. Charles but quickly ran out of room.
“The Franciscan priests serving at St. Anthony Church told us there was an available building across the street from them,” Heitzman said. “(NFL great) Paul Hornung contributed some money to get it going, and it just started growing. There were a lot of contributions from the parishes,” he said.
“I wanted to come back today to thank people and meet the present workers and volunteers,” Heitzman said. “I’m just so grateful, this is the Holy Spirit at work.”
In 1984, Sister Grace Simpson became the first Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph to begin ministering at Sister Visitor. After 23 years as a teacher and principal in Louisville and her native Nelson County, Sister Grace was serving in Maple Mount in 1984, but she knew she wanted to be back among the people.
“I talked with Sister Janet Dougherty and as soon as I arrived here, I knew this was it,” Sister Grace said. Sister Janet retired from Sister Visitor in 1991, and died in May 2014, a month before Sister Grace retired. Sister Grace now volunteers in Louisville at the St. John Center for Homeless Men.
Sister Margaret Marie Greenwell and the late Sister Clara Johnson were the next Ursulines who joined Sister Visitor in 1993. Sister Michele came in 2005, and Sister Maureen O’Neill a year later. When the last Sister of Charity left in 2011, Sister Michele took over.
Sister Maureen spent 35 years as a teacher and principal but enjoys the work she’s done for 13 years as a caseworker at Sister Visitor.
“It just seems like there are more and more needs,” she said. Sister Michele agrees.
“We are serving 500-plus people every month. It used to be 200,” she said. “The government has put restrictions on food stamps, and that puts a greater need on us.”
There are at least six halfway houses in the Sister Visitor service area, with each housing 8-10 people, Sister Michele said. People are going through drug and alcohol rehab, and Dismas Charities is serving people transitioning back into society from incarceration.
“Through the teachings of Saint Angela, we are trying to meet the needs of the times, to serve those in need,” Sister Michele said. “We give them a hand up, not a handout.”
Lisa DeJaco Crutcher, chief executive officer for Catholic Charites of Louisville, said it was important to celebrate 50 years of the Sister Visitor Center and invite the community to join in.
“This used to be a heavily Catholic, working class neighborhood,” Crutcher said. “A lot of the volunteers grew up here. They’ll tell you they played basketball at St. Anthony’s across the street.”
Local dignitaries attending the block party included Bryan Warren, representing Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
“We understand how to identify need in our community and to find the right partners,” Warren said. “That has a lot to do with Sister Visitor being a women-led organization.”
Metro Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith told the crowd, “We all want to be connected. I love the Sister Visitor sign that says, “Providing help, creating hope.’ My pastor says hope is an acronym – having only positive expectations.”
Vendors set up booths at the block party and there were activities for children, including giving them free backpacks filled with school supplies. Mercer Transportation, which has its headquarters nearby, donated and grilled 300 hamburgers and 150 hot dogs to feed the crowd at no charge.
Among the sponsors of the event were the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. Four members of the Ursuline Leadership Council attended the event – Sisters Amelia Stenger, Pat Lynch, Pam Mueller and Judith Nell Riney.
The next celebration is on Oct. 18, when a volunteer and donor recognition prayer service will be held at St. Margaret Mary Church, followed by doughnuts and coffee. The church at 7813 Shelbyville Road is easily accessible, and once featured many Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph as teachers.
“St. Margaret Mary is one of several parishes that is very generous to Sister Visitor,” Sister Michele Ann said. “They do a food drive right before Thanksgiving that keeps our food distribution going for many months. They bring personal hygiene donations monthly and also support us financially.”