Years ago, a reporter for the Catholic Star Herald visited El Centro, a Catholic Social Services outreach office and thrift store in Camden City. He walked out an hour later with the notes he needed for his story, as well as a new necktie.
The reporter didn’t know whether Sister Mary Vincent Sharp, who ran El Centro, insisted he take the tie because of his somewhat shabby writer’s attire, or because it was just her nature to give.
As anyone who remembers Sister Mary Vincent knew, it was her nature to give. (In retirement she wrote a letter informing her community that she wanted to be an organ donor, adding “I am afraid I’m wearing out all the parts, however.”)
With Pope Francis calling for renewed attention on the needs of the poor, this is an appropriate time to remember Sister Mary Vincent, a nun who saw her love of God and work for the poor as the same thing.
“I wanted to serve the poor and live my whole life for God,” Sister Mary Vincent once said. She was attracted to the Missionary Sisters of the Most Blessed Trinity, she explained, “because they just did the good that was needed without a lot of fuss.”
In Camden, she saw plenty that needed to be done. In 2000, when she had diabetes and high blood pressure and was in need of two knee replacements, the New York Times began an article on her by describing her driving her old Ford Econoline truck to Northeast Philadelphia to pick up discarded tables and chairs — she was sure someone could use them — and to Lindenwold to get a computer for a single mother with two children.
“Everybody has a need,” she said. “They run short of food every month after the 20th. We often need to give out toilet paper, shaving cream and detergent. Right now things are a lot worse. We have a lot of poor, large families and they can’t make ends meet. There are jobs, but they are low-paying jobs. And today, kids ask for so much more.”
They may ask for more, but sometimes are so happy with so little. The reporter with the new necktie recalls the nun talking about how excited children would be when they came to El Centro and received a box of breakfast cereal. For Sister Mary Vincent, it was clearly both gratifying and heartbreaking.
Sister Mary Vincent worked in Puerto Rico for 13 years and then in Philadelphia for 15 years before coming to South Jersey, where she spent the next 26 years before retiring in 2001.
While working at El Centro, she lived in the city’s Northgate Apartments, which she treated as missionary territory. She visited the seniors who lived there and arranged monthly Mass.
The missionary zeal that animated her life stuck with her in retirement.
“About two years ago we made the decision to close our infirmary and move our sisters to a local nursing home,” Sister Joan Marie Keller, general custodian for the Trinitarian Sisters said. “Sister Mary Vincent saw this as an opportunity to serve the residents and was the first to volunteer. She organized the sewing group to make dresses for the children in our Mexico mission and so much more.”
When Sister Mary Vincent celebrated her 50th jubilee, a priest friend wrote to her, “Sometimes I think you did as much to prepare me for priestly ministry as seminary did.”
Sister Mary Vincent affectionately remembered the people of the Diocese of Camden long after ill health forced her to the order’s motherhouse in Philadelphia. She would occasionally write letters to the Star Herald after reading stories about priests, remembering how one helped stock shelves at El Centro on his day off or another would always bring clothing donations after visiting his family.
Sister Mary Vincent died May 31, having improved the lives of countless individuals and families — and even one reporter’s wardrobe.