Mother Superior

Christopher Peters

The first time Mary Jo Copeland tells the story, you weep. You feel closer to God, any God, because you're closer to her. You whisper "amen" when she whispers "amen." You dig deep to give whatever you can. You even consider becoming a disciple. That's why she's scripted her tale and committed it to memory. That's why she shares it with everyone she meets.

The parable's protagonist is a 13-year-old girl Copeland calls Maria. In the beginning, she is sitting in Copeland's office at Sharing and Caring Hands in downtown Minneapolis. Like most everyone else who comes through the doors of the private charity, Maria is poor, probably homeless. The flowers on her dress are faded, the eyelets on her shoes are worn, and her spirit has been shattered. "It's so hard being poor," Copeland says. She knows. She's been there.

"Mary Jo," the little girl confesses, "a man hurt me. A man hurt me and I hate him."

Copeland's voice fades into a hush. Whether you're watching her speak at a Christian youth rally or counsel a small prayer group, the audience stops breathing to hear the details. "The little girl was raped," Copeland reveals, her lips quivering. "And I told her, 'Maria, we have to pray for the man who hurt you, because he is a sad, sick man.'"

After a dramatic pause, Copeland has Maria kneeling next to her bunk at Mary's Place, the new homeless shelter Copeland has built across the street from Sharing and Caring Hands. She says Maria's hands are folded, and that she is speaking to God. "The next morning, Maria came to me and told me she prayed for that man," Copeland concludes. "She said, 'Mary Jo, I prayed for that man because you asked me to.'"

The room shifts in unison. Men reach for their handkerchiefs. Women pull at the crosses hanging around their necks. The love and forgiveness that saved Maria can save us all. Poverty, homelessness, disease, they're no match for the likes of Mary Jo Copeland. "She's just like Mother Teresa." "She's a saint." That's what they say as you sit stunned mute. And that's what you believe.

But the second time you hear Copeland tell Maria's story, its power is stunted. The tears seem staged. The dramatic pauses become nothing more than spaces on a page. After the third or fourth performance, your stomach begins to turn: maybe because you want Maria's life to be more than a metaphor, or maybe because she seems less real, less alive every time Copeland drags you through her anguish. Then, without warning, the truth reveals itself.

Maria is Mary Jo Copeland's lifeboat. The very act of telling the story both reveals and absolves her hypocrisy. Through characters like Maria, she can wallow in the pain of her own complicated history without disturbing her perfectly crafted persona. She can dredge up her harrowing childhood on a daily basis, remind the world of who has done her harm, and then--as Saint Mary--forgive and forget. She can frolic with her demons, then tell those who come to her for help not to "dwell on yesterday but live for tomorrow." By publicly exorcising her past, she can privately deny the contradictions driving her work and haunting her life.

At 8 a.m., a line starts to form outside of Sharing and Caring Hands at 425 N. Seventh St. By 9:30 a.m., it winds around the south end of the building and into the parking lot, two to three hundred bodies long. Homeless families, eyes rimmed with fatigue, stand single-file. Runaway teens rock back and forth, smoking to break up the monotony. Single mothers fuss over each other's children. They are black and white, Asian and Indian, Latin and Russian.

Inside, Copeland's working the kitchen, meeting with volunteers from an out-state church. In a few minutes the rosy-cheeked group will dish out bacon, scrambled eggs, sweet rolls, and oatmeal to the downcast. But now, holding hands in a circle, heads bowed reverently, they listen as Copeland delivers the day's blessing. This is, after all, why they came--to meet Saint Mary, to breathe her air.

"Here I am, God," they chant in unison. "I've come to do your will."

When the doors open, Copeland greets each and every visitor. The ritual is as much about security as it is an expression of good will. Barely 5-foot-6, the 54-year-old Copeland is armed with a set of street smarts sharpened on 15 years of volunteer work. "She never lets them see her sweat," Mary Jo's husband of 36 years, Dick Copeland, says. "When these guys show up trying to make trouble, she just treats them like her own kids. She tells them to shut up, be quiet, and behave. In the beginning, when she was working alone, I remember she would take knives off of guys in the line. She'd just look them straight in the eye, hold out her hand and they'd give it up."  

While breakfast is served, Copeland--dressed, as always, in a blue denim skirt and candy-striped shirt--navigates the center in a near-sprint. She escorts people downstairs to give away foodstuffs and clothing; processes pleas for housing, rent money, bus tokens, and school books; fields phone calls from social-service agencies, potential donors, and the media; and stops in her tracks to pat a child's head or say a quick prayer. On this Thursday morning, Lynda McDonnell, a staff writer from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is in tow with a photographer. Assigned to write a story about how recent welfare cuts will affect Minnesotans, she watches in awe as Copeland seems to rise above the misery. Copeland is more than happy to indulge McDonnell's questions. After all, she's felt the power of good PR.

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).

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."

Outcast. Prophet. Saint. Copeland constantly uses these loaded definitions when referring to herself. And she refers to herself constantly. Her mission is part of a grand plan, she says. "I've been given a grace from God. Of course, everyone walks with God's grace. But ever since I was a little girl I've known a special grace. How else can you explain what I've been able to do? How else can you explain what I've been able to survive?"

The details vary from year to year, but Copeland's autobiography, like the story of Maria, is the stuff of a made-for-TV miniseries. She was born Mary Jo Holtby in Rochester, to a poverty-stricken, dysfunctional family. For six years she lived with her doting grandparents. Then, when her baby brother John was born, her nuclear family reunited. Father Woodrow, bent out of whack by a tour of combat in Korea, beat his wife Gertrude, then beat Mary Jo. Copeland remembers getting kicked in the face. She remembers cowering in the corner of her room "like a little mouse."

Gertrude, Copeland's story goes, would go to the bingo hall and gamble for food and booze, leaving the family in filth. Mary Jo smelled. The kids at Catholic school laughed. She had no friends. She only had God. Even then, only interfacing with someone more needy, more alone, could soothe her tortured soul. "When I was 16 I used my first paycheck from Woolworth's to buy a poor lady a coat," Copeland says. "I spent my entire paycheck."

Barely past puberty, Copeland decided she would become a nun. Then Dick Copeland appeared at a school dance at Holy Angels Academy in Richfield, and everything changed for both of them. Dick, who came from wealth, was cast from his family for pursuing a relationship with Mary Jo. His relatives still think she's disturbed (the first and last time Mary Jo went to her in-laws' for dinner, she ended up waiting for Dick in the car).

After marrying Dick, Mary Jo found her first calling: raising a family. In 14 years she gave birth to six boys and six girls. "When people ask me how I can get up and do what I do every day, I remind them that I raised 12 kids on one salary," Copeland says. "This is a breeze." After the birth of her eighth child, Copeland's body deteriorated. The doctor prescribed bed rest, but she didn't have the time. Instead she took prescription painkillers during the day and sleeping pills at night. In the late '80s, Copeland told reporters she used to wash the drugs down with alcohol. Now she says her drinking habits were exaggerated. Either way, she spent five years addicted to Valium. "My mom went through some hard shit," Copeland's son Mark says. "I remember seeing her curled up in a ball on the floor, crying. When you think about it, it's a miracle she survived."

Eventually, Copeland fought off the jones with prayer. Then Dick told her to flee the nest. "She had so much love," he says. "She had to share it with the world." That's when Copeland went to work for Catholic Charities.  

Through it all, Copeland says she remained an outcast from her own family. She didn't want to speak to her father, and her mother remained aloof until she died. "I sent her flowers on Mother's Day," she says, wiping her tears with a blue tissue. "I tried to call her. But she never answered. She never came."

Even today, Copeland says she feels like she's living on the outside of a glass jar, looking in. But now she knows her pain had a purpose. Just as God delivered her from evil, she can shepherd the poor through this life to another. "It's simple acts of love that will make us saints," she says. "Love, love, love until it hurts. That's what God is all about."

The Silver Spoon restaurant is located on the 6700 block of Penn Avenue just south of 494 in Richfield. The diner's aging crowd of morning regulars made its mark decades ago, when Southtown was a booming suburban mall and blue-collar businesses flourished on both sides of the highway. Now the neighborhood serves as a reminder of what the world looked like before the service industry was franchised. There are no Starbucks, no Boston Markets, no McDonald's, just a collection of fading storefronts and strong black coffee at the Silver Spoon.

Before she died of a stroke in 1996, Mary Jo Copeland's mother Gertrude Holtby ran a dress shop specializing in clothing for older women, just one block north of the Silver Spoon. Joyce Spencer, who runs a dry-cleaning service across the street from where Holtby worked, says her neighbor stayed open through her 82nd birthday because she loved meeting new customers, chatting with mainstays in the neighborhood, and starting her day at the Silver Spoon. "I swear," Spencer says with a spit. "If there's a saint in this story, it's the mother--not the daughter."

Up and down the Silver Spoon's front counter, regulars echo Spencer's sentiments. Holtby, whom everyone still calls Gert, was known as "kind," "good-hearted," and "compassionate." Copeland, on the other hand, is held in contempt. "Don't come around here if you're looking for someone to say nice things about Mary Jo," Spencer says. "Gert never had a drinking problem, never gambled. She played bingo at the VFW, that's all--10 cents a card. Gertrude was very good to everyone, including her family."

Before her death, friends of Holtby bristled when local media dragged out their yearly tributes to Copeland and her charity, usually during the holiday season. They never said anything to Holtby, though. In this part of Richfield people of Holtby's generation don't ask others to air their dirty laundry. That's why they pretended not to notice the bruises on Holtby's arms, the occasional black eye or scab. Everyone knew Woodrow was crazy; that he beat his wife until he died of Alzheimer's disease in 1986; that he probably beat his children as well. But Gertrude didn't want to talk about it. She preferred to keep a stiff upper lip, a trait her daughter neither possesses nor admires.

"My mother never did anything to stop him," Copeland says with rage in her eyes. "She just stayed there and took it. She never left. She never did anything. No one will ever know what happened in that house. No one will ever know." Though Copeland never quite gets specific, she always makes sure to let you know that beatings and verbal abuse were just a part of the horror.

Spencer and others maintain that it was Copeland, not her mother, who refused to return calls, stop by at Christmas, or send a birthday card. One longtime friend of Holtby's who did not want to be identified says Holtby would send herself balloons and flowers on Mother's Day so people wouldn't ask questions about her famous daughter. "I'm so upset with Mary Jo," the woman says. "She's just not what she appears to be."

Holtby's friend also maintains Copeland's complaints of maternal abandonment are pure fiction. She says when the Copeland children were young Dick routinely came by Gertrude's Dress Shop to pick free apparel off the racks. Holtby, the friend says, also helped pay her grandchildren's private-school tuition.

Chances are what really transpired between Copeland and her mother will always be grist for the storytellers, both at the Silver Spoon and at Sharing and Caring Hands. It's a fact, however, that Copeland did not attend her mother's funeral, an act of defiance that even upset the local Catholic hierarchy. "The archbishop came to me after the funeral and demanded to know why I wasn't at my own mother's funeral," Copeland says. "And I said, 'Look here, I could not go. I could not go. Do you understand? I have forgiven her, but I could not go.'"  

It was Copeland's oldest daughter Therese who organized her grandmother's funeral and who composed an obituary in the Star Tribune. At the end of the short write-up, those in mourning were asked to send donations to Sharing and Caring Hands. Copeland brushes off the controversial request, saying it yielded "next to nothing." But Holtby's still-grieving friend believes it was salt in the wound. "What Mary Jo is doing downtown is a good thing, but in part, she's gotten financing over the years by making people feel sorry for her, by degrading her mother," she says. "And that request at the end of the obituary? Well I'm sure Gert did a somersault in the grave over that one."

"And I told her, 'Maria, we have to pray for the man who hurt you, because he is a sad, sick man.'"

John Holtby is 47 years old. As a child he suffered from mental retardation. At age 16, he was sent to a boys' home in Austin, Texas, because he was too much for his family to handle, too much to explain. When he went AWOL from there, Gertrude got on a plane and brought him home. Ever since then he's been drugged, shocked, and caged, coping with his schizophrenia in institutions and halfway houses. It's doubtful whether he'll make it on the outside. Past experience suggests he won't.

Although Gertrude didn't always know what to do with John, they shared a strong bond. "She wanted him to be free, that's why he loved her so much," a longtime acquaintance of John's says. "The only thing John wants is a certain amount of freedom. His greatest terror is being locked up."

Before Gertrude died, John never talked about his sister Mary Jo. But after Gertrude's stroke he heard Copeland being interviewed on the radio and flew into a rage. "He just kept saying, 'Why is Mary Jo hurting my mother,'" Gertrude's friend says. "He just couldn't understand it."

"After his mother died, John started using curse words for the first time in years," his acquaintance says. "He called Mary Jo a cunt and a bitch, just lost control because he associated being locked up with his sister. Mary Jo has a history of wanting to put John back in institutions the minute he got out. And, as of now, John's managed to work his way into a situation where he can go on a walk in his neighborhood or visit the corner store and buy a soda, which is much better than being locked up in a state hospital. He believes, given the chance, Mary Jo would take that away from him."

During the last years of Gertrude's life she shared legal custody of John with her nephew Jim Oelke and his wife Debbie. The three became close friends during that time, so when Gertrude was dying the Oelkes resolved to honor a last wish. They promised to ensure that neither Mary Jo nor any member of her immediate family would ever get legal custody of John.

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."

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.

Welcome to the world of privatized welfare. Minnesota's Little Calcutta.

"That's the problem with charity," says Tom Logeland, director of Alliance of the Streets. "With a government agency there's a check and a balance. You have rights. At a charity, people fall through the cracks for no good reason. In the end, whether you get any meaningful help has more to do with luck than anything else."

Gale, a 33-year-old single mother of three, thinks women get treated a little better than men at Sharing and Caring Hands, especially if they have kids. Still, she equates her experiences with Copeland to shooting craps. "It's just how she sees fit. It's not based on need. It's not prejudice, either. I can't put my finger on it. It's more of how the day flows, or how much credibility she will get for this or that. It's not a black or white thing. It's a saint thing. Y'know? If I help this humble person then people will see me as good. If I turn out this smart ass, people will feel it's justified."  

Andrew, a 41-year-old homeless man, only makes his way to Mary Jo's when he's exhausted every other avenue. He says it's an exercise in pride-swallowing: "You have to be crazy to want to go down there. You have to act like a goddamn slave to get her to help. She just wants people to worship her. It's bullshit."

Of course, no one says the self-sufficient Copeland has to help anybody. For all practical purposes, she's a volunteer. And as Bruce Harstad, one of Copeland's paid employees, says, for every 10 people you help, someone will be unhappy. "You'll hear a lot of different things from a lot of different people. But she's trying. She's doing the best she can," he says.

"Very, very few people who deserve help can't get it here," Copeland says. "But I do what I do, and it's for the moment. I don't worry about it. I can't. You make the decision, right or wrong, and you move on. It's a waste of time to dwell on the mistakes."

In fact, few welfare advocates dispute Copeland's success rate or energy. She's helped countless people, saved countless lives. They do, however, worry about the saintly image she's so carefully crafted. They worry her good deeds will always eclipse real, long-term needs. They worry she's starting to believe the hype.

"She's the envy of public-policy people because of her ability to garner attention. And she may be getting that attention because she's consciously de-politicized herself," says Kris Jacobs, director of JOBS NOW. "But unfortunately her image is built on this mentality that the poor will always be with us, as if poverty were genetic. And it fits into the media's need to cover the lower-income community. The can say they're covering the issues when they go see what happening at Mary Jo's. I think she's shrewdly advanced the grandmotherly thing to get what she wants. But, as of yet, she hasn't used her bully pulpit to advance the cause of the impoverished."

Mark Thisius, director of the local homeless activist group Up and Out of Poverty, takes a more cynical view. Universally seen as a loudmouth radical by those who work at Sharing and Caring Hands, Thisius believes Copeland is particularly dangerous in the current political environment. "By and large she knows the score on the streets, and she's been totally, totally silent," Thisius says. "She says she's doing enough. But she's not doing it all. And she's selling herself as the answer. It's just too simplistic to say the thing that needs to change is the behavior of these people."

If middle Americans think there's a saint watching over the downtrodden, Thisius worries, the last remnants of the social safety net will be that much easier to shred. If corporate America can write a check to Mary Jo, they'll feel absolved of responsibility. Because unlike the do-gooders at the welfare office, Copeland can discern who's been naughty and nice. "All they have to do is let go of their anger," as Copeland frequently says about her clients. "All they have to do is forget yesterday and live life for today."

All they have to do is believe.

Privately, nonprofit directors, social workers, and welfare advocates are quick to criticize Copeland's procedural inconsistencies. They also wonder out loud about her ethereal motives. But few are comfortable speaking out. They fear that if Copeland perceives them as uncooperative or unappreciative they'll be cut off.

Their fears seem justified. In the spring of 1996, director Patrick Hennessey unveiled his locally produced documentary, The Homeless Home Movie. The film is a street diary focusing on seven protagonists, a raw, first-person account of what it takes to survive without an address. It's a unique approach at a time when media tend to cover poverty by covering the caregivers. In Hennessey's movie, people standing in line at Sharing and Caring Hands are asked to evaluate Copeland's saintly demeanor. Activists such as Thisius are given a chance to challenge her politics. And while the criticisms of Copeland are framed with heavy doses of praise, she and her loyalists are still fuming about the project.

Copeland says she hasn't seen the film, but her son Mark, daughter Catherine LaMere, and Bruce Harstad attended the premiere. Some in the audience snickered at news clips featuring Copeland outside of Mary's Place, lifting her hands to the heavens and thanking God for a miracle. They moaned when she began to wax on about her hardships. They applauded when Thisius accused Copeland and other private charities of being part of the problem. Hennessey says that before they left "in a huff," he asked Mark Copeland, LaMere, and Harstad to participate in a post-film discussion, but they refused.  

Even now, when The Homeless Home Movie comes up at Sharing and Caring Hands, staff members and volunteers begin to circle, shaking their heads in disbelief, barely disguising their disgust with red faces and pursed lips. "Most of the people interviewed in that film were from Up and Out of Poverty," Harstad complains. "And they're simply pursuing a Marxist agenda."

"For someone to criticize my mother is just crazy," Mark Copeland adds. "There's no talking to them. The people in that film were just goofy. A lot of people make controversy just to make it.

"If someone were to ask me if my mom is holding this city together I'd say yes," he continues. "The world is going to start coming here. When my mom faces God, she'll be able to say what she's done. And when you write this article, I know God will be with you. I know he'll guide you to the truth."

Later, sitting in her office with Mark, Copeland tells me she doesn't have time to be political, doesn't have time to worry about those few she can't help. "I've always been downtown for love. I don't care what the politicians think. They should get away from their desks and get to their knees," Copeland says. "I'm telling the world what needs to be done by doing it."

Then, to conclude our week together, Mark and Mary Jo hold my hands and bow their heads and pray. Not for this reporter's salvation; not for Mary, Mother of God; not even for the lost souls scratching at Sharing and Caring Hands. Mary Jo prays for the thing that matters most. She prays for a good story.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >