Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

In 1985, after spending what she describes as "three frustrating years" shuffling paper at Catholic Charities, Copeland received a $2,200 award from KARE-TV, Channel 11, for her volunteer work. Copeland used the money to begin working out of a downtown storefront, where she gave away food and clothing. To stay afloat she canvassed local corporations and spoke 43 weekends a year for civic groups, foundations, and churches. By 1991 there was enough money to open a $240,000 center on Seventh Street; a year later, the space was renovated for an additional $450,000. Billed as the last resort for the city's poor, Sharing and Caring Hands offers daily meals, on-site dental care, showers, a food shelf, and--according to Copeland--dignity.

By 1993, Copeland was ready to expand again. She embarked on a two-year fight with the Minneapolis City Council to buy five acres of former railroad property adjacent to Sharing and Caring Hands. The battle hit the headlines and came to a boil when morning talk-show host Barbara Carlson encouraged her enraged radio audience to canvass City Hall in support of the shelter. The Council--politically motivated to protect the real estate for a friendly developer--finally caved. On May 23, 1995, Copeland christened Mary's Place, a $7.5 million, 56-unit homeless shelter. In November of this year, she will use grant money from the McKnight Foundation, General Mills, and private donors such as Carl Pohlad to move Sharing and Caring Hands to a new, $4 million center across the street. The old building will be used as a child-care and teen-counseling center.

Since she's been in business, Copeland's endeavors have been deemed squeaky clean by the state attorney general's Charity Review Council. In 1996, Sharing and Caring Hands, Inc. raised close to $4 million. Every penny was accounted for and 94 percent of the funds went directly back into programming. No other Minnesota charity has a higher rate of return (the closest is Catholic Charities, which puts 83 percent of income into its programs).

Christopher Peters

In part this success rate is due to Copeland's zealous attention to financial detail. It also helps that just six staff members--not including Copeland, the director of the organization--take salaries totaling only $76,642. "It's all about the awesome power of God," Copeland says. "For the world to beat a path to your door miracles have to happen. And they happen here."

In the cramped waiting area at Sharing and Caring Hands it's hard to find anyone who will disagree. While a trio of exhausted street people wait for Copeland to soak their blistered feet in tubs of sudsy water, Teresa White and her 16-year-old daughter Tereual are waiting to see about getting some baby clothes. Despite the decibel level, Tereual's baby, Norica Kelly, is sleeping soundly. She's just 5 days old.

"Mary Jo's the only one you can count on," Teresa says. "And if it weren't for God touching her heart, she wouldn't give you nothing. She'll see this angel. She'll know we're for real."

Antonio Cardinelli has been doing odd jobs at Sharing and Caring Hands for more than a decade. A former bouncer, the imposing New Yorker is reduced to mush when he talks about Copeland's grace. "I didn't care about nobody. That's changed," he says. "I didn't think prayer was nothing, but then I saw her put the hardest of the hard into treatment. I saw her get them jobs. I'm a Catholic and this lady does miracles. She's the best I've ever seen. She's so real."

For Copeland, every day starts at 4 a.m., when she and Dick walk across the street from their house to their west-suburban Catholic church. Reporters from every publication and TV station in town have documented the journey. It's part of the mythology. Even the promotional video for Sharing and Caring Hands features an early-morning sequence: Mary Jo pacing the vacant church, chanting the Rosary to lighten the shadows. Mary Jo kneeling in front of Mother Mary as the day's first sun streams through the stained glass. Mary Jo staring up at the Cross, engaged in a one-on-one with her maker.

Those invited to watch Copeland worship, however, are politely asked not to reveal the location of the church. Already some people have made their way out to her "private place," Copeland complains, looking for a handout or a sympathetic ear. Which is why Sharing and Caring Hands' maintenance man, Brian Weeber--a recovering drug addict who says Copeland saved him from the streets--always comes to watch over his boss. Each morning, he carries her prayer books, escorts her to a shiny white Lincoln Continental (adorned with a designer license plate that reads "Pray Now"), and keeps an eye out for trouble.

At 7 a.m., after more than two hours of solitary meditation, Copeland administers body and blood to a crowd gathered for morning Mass. Although she's had the keys to her church for years, Copeland has only recently begun serving as a Eucharistic minister. And now, the church's youngish priest seems irritated with Copeland's presence, especially when the secular media is along for the show.

"Yes, I think he and others are uncomfortable with me," Copeland shrugs. "They think, 'Who is she to tell the world about eternity?' But a prophet is never appreciated in their own land."

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