Mother Superior

The terrible compassion of Mary Jo Copeland.

A year after Gertrude was buried, Copeland's daughter Therese sought guardianship of John. Debbie Oelke says she has nothing against Therese, who is a nurse at Abbott Northwestern and more than qualified to take care of John. But because Therese is so close to her mother (she lives in a room at Mary's Place), the Oelkes feared Copeland would get involved and push to have John re-institutionalized. In court, the two parties agreed to hand control of John's affairs over to a neutral party.

"Mary Jo is a very cold, heartless person when it comes to these matters," Debbie Oelke says. "As far as I'm concerned, she throws herself into her charity work to try and forget what she's done to the people around her. I find it unforgivable."

When John's name comes up in conversation, Copeland becomes almost incoherent. Her brow furrows while her eyes flit back and forth in a panic. She's sure about how she's handled her mother, so sure she's willing to lecture an archbishop. John is another matter. "I can't see him. I can't handle him. He thinks he's Jesus," Copeland says. "He took his fist and hit Dick in the ear. Dick almost went deaf. You can't relate to him."

Christopher Peters

Copeland looks off to the side. She seems lost in her own office at Sharing and Caring Hands. "If he ever came in here I'd give him a meal, I'd give him cigarettes, whatever..." Her voice trails off into a sob.

"Gertrude believed in what Mary Jo was doing downtown," Oelke says. "I do too. If you can help anyone in need and be sincere about it, that's wonderful. But how do you wipe the feet of strangers and turn around and shit on your mother? How do you cast out your brother? How do you live with that?

"Every time I see an article in the paper on Mary Jo, I could just run upstairs and throw up in the toilet. Because it's 95 percent true, but it's 5 percent false. And until she can find forgiveness in her heart for her own mother, until she can find a way to deal with the mental illness in her family, she's not OK. It's not OK."

In the basement at Sharing and Caring Hands, boxes busting with donated dry food, canned goods, and clothing litter the floor. All day long visitors calmly rummage for usable items. When the doors first open in the morning, though, there's a mad rush. Over 50 people scurry about the room, filling their garbage bags with all they can carry. One man has two sacks slung over his shoulder, stretched to breaking with over-sized cans of Campbell's soup. A woman who's been on-site three days running stuffs two winter coats into a dirty backpack. Another man practically runs over a teenage boy to score a box of sugar snaps. Most everyone's eyes are cast down, as if the concrete floor has consumed their last ounce of pride.

Through this Darwinian nightmare Copeland spots a Russian woman she thinks has taken more than her fair share. "You've got enough pickles. That's enough," Copeland says. "Yeah, you've got to go now. Bye bye." The middle-aged mother of three heads back into the fray, ignoring the edict. Copeland grabs her gently by the arm and leads her to the door. "Greedy, greedy. Be a good girl now and go.

"You've got to watch these Russians," she says later with a knowing nod. "They just take and take."

Discernment. At Sharing and Caring Hands this word means everything. To Copeland, this is what separates her from the paper-staplers wasting taxpayers' money at the welfare office and the bureaucrats wasting time at Catholic Charities. It is her gift--the ability, in a second's time, to decide whether someone is deserving of her help, her money, or her prayers.

"Let's say there's a well-dressed man out there wearing gold chains and a nice pair of shoes. I might give him a little something, but he can help himself. I know it and he knows it," Copeland says. "But if you see someone standing there with sad, raggedy clothes, you have to help that person."

Mark Copeland, to whom the rank and file at Sharing and Caring Hands universally refers as heir to the throne, has watched what he calls his mother's "incredible discernment" for the better part of a lifetime. "A lot of it is someone's demeanor," he says. "She treats these people who come here like her kids. You start to feel it. It's a compassion. We have the ability to know who is a sad person, and who is a user."

Later, Copeland is upstairs fielding two dozen requests for three dozen different types of assistance. She's the boss, the final word--no rubber stamps, no rules. One man needs a bus ticket back to Duluth. Copeland authorizes the check. Two women are given cash to help them cover rent, three others are denied a damage deposit. Bus tokens are distributed liberally, but the homeless shelter is full. Some people leave with a smile, others stomp out in a rage. Whenever it's all too much, Copeland moves into the cafeteria to dole out dollar bills to children playing in the dining hall. They come running, grabbing onto her skirt and putting out their hands.

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