Meetup: Sister of Rebellion

by Jim Luken

Mary Beth Peters took her vows as a Sister of Charity at about the same time in 1985 that Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen came into existence. She maintains regular contact with the woman who founded Our Daily Bread (ODB), Cookie Vogelpohl, and seems to enjoy sketching the history of the invaluable resource she now heads.

According to Mary Beth, Cookie was working in an office downtown, when out the window she noticed a man eating food out of a trash can. That night, disturbed by what she had seen, Cookie mentioned it to her aunt, saying something to the effect, “That shouldn’t happen. Somebody should do something about it.” Her aunt responded, “Well. You’re somebody.”

And indeed, Cookie Vogelpohl was somebody. Not long after that incident, she quit her job, and began cooking at home and bringing the food down in the evenings to St. Francis Seraph School. The first night there were 10-12 hungry folks who came to eat.

After some time, Cookie found that the school was not the right place for what she wanted to do. The best time of day to operate a soup kitchen is at lunch time, and school kids were in the lunchroom every day at St. Francis.

Cookie’s connections grew. She was able to raise the money to buy the spacious building at Race and Elder on the east end of Findlay Market. According to Mary Beth, this happened without many of the market shop owners catching wind of it, and it was “much to their dismay” of many that Our Daily Bread became a prominent fixture there.

When Cookie retired, Mary Jo Holohan, the wife of ODB’s first donor (Bill Holohan) took over the directorship. Sister Mary Beth came on board as Executive Director in 2005. The facility provides a complete meal (usually a salad, an entrée, several side dishes, coffee and desert) to 250 to 500, mostly adults (most of whom are men) five days a week. Understandably, Monday is usually the busiest day.

Mary Beth explains that there is now a yearly operating budget of $650,000, with another $200,000 coming in as food donations. She rattles off the figures: “85 % of our funding comes from private donations, with 15% from grants. We get nothing from the government, nothing from the city, nothing from United Way.”

There is no bitterness when she says this. The generosity of individuals no doubt provides a degree of freedom from outside interference.

Sister Mary Beth Peters grew up in Finneytown, one of four children.

“I was the scapegoat in an alcoholic family,” she says. Rebellious from the beginning, she got in “a lot trouble,” including doing drugs and alcohol while she was still in grade school.

“I got it out of my system early,” she says.

But not too early. The semi-wild behavior continued through high school at MacCauley and through her college years at Edgecliff College, where she earned her degree in social work. After college, she took on a variety jobs which included work in a Head Start program. She taught first grade for one year, and was the manager of a home for pregnant teens experiencing homelessness in Florida.

Then Mary Beth was hired into what would be a life changing job for her, this at the St. Joseph Villa orphanage.

As a live-in “unit counselor,” she would work seven days straight, and then have the next four off. The situation was ideal for a young woman who had not yet even thought about becoming a nun.

“You would work hard for a solid week and then you would go out and raise hell.” She describes this as a time of “working hard and partying hard.”

As fate (or grace) would have it, there were a number of Sisters of Charity working there at the orphanage. “They were peers and friends,” says Mary Beth. “I was attracted to the Sisters of Charity because they were rebellious.” The sisters invited the young woman into their circle, and a religious vocation, evolved from those connections.

“You reach a point in your life,” she says, “when play time is over. You understand that there’s got to be more to life.” For 25 year-old Mary Beth Peters, “more” meant a calling, a vocation.

“It really appealed to me,” she says now. “I never had the desire to be married and have kids. But I always wanted to work with kids and to work with the underprivileged.”

At Our Daily Bread, there is plenty of interaction with the underprivileged, and even some contact with kids. The soup kitchen closes at 2:30 p.m. and three days a week a “Kids Café” is provided from 2:30 p.m. to five.

This is only one of a number of services that ODB provides, and Sister Mary Beth seems proud to list them. She points out that, while we are doing the interview, in the next room, a weekly women’s group is meeting, shepherded by a volunteer, Judy Frankel, who happens to be a licensed psychologist, retired.

“We have bingo and movies. We have a nurse through the visiting nurses association. And we have a foot doctor. Any number of other agencies come in and use the facility with their clients who are also often regular ‘guests’ of the soup kitchen.”

Our Daily Bread employs a full time social worker, “We have an open door policy,” Sister Mary Beth says.

The social worker helps people in various areas that are often complicated for the poor, like birth certificates and IDs.

“We hold onto the important papers for many of our guests,” she explains. “Otherwise they can be easily lost or stolen.”

I ask her about the best part of her job. “People, no doubt,” she says, laughing. “There’s never a dull moment, and the same thing never happens twice.” She shakes her head, aware that what she is saying is a coin with two sides. “Every day you see the hopelessness and tragedy of mental illness played out in everyday life.”

Sister Mary Beth and her staff estimate that nearly 65% of their guests have mental issues of one kind or another. Although she works in an office off the main dining room, Mary Beth says she has lots of hands-on contact with the folks who dine in the lunchroom and others from the neighborhood.

“I’m a smoker. So I go outside. I get to know them, call them by name.”

When her work day is finished, Mary Beth Peters doesn’t drive to the big Sisters of Charity convent at Mount Saint Joseph. Like many nuns these days, she lives in a suburban house with a community of three other women. She is the youngest. The oldest is 80.

“There are 20 legs in the kitchen at night,” she jokes. “The four of us and our three dogs.”

I ask her for some closing thoughts.

“I don’t have any words of wisdom,” she says briskly, intimating a bit of the old rebelliousness. But, in fact, she does have a few apt parting words.

“Hang on tight. Each day brings something. If you can’t laugh, why even bother. And there’s lots to laugh at, even the sad things. You either laugh or you cry.”