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Catholic Charities leader Mary McCarrick looks to next chapter in life of service

When Sister Mary McCarrick was asked to become director of Catholic Charities of Buffalo in 2009, she dutifully promised to give it a try.

“This was not on my job plan,” she told Edward Kmiec, who was bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo at the time. “I have no need for this job. I have no particular attraction for this job, but I’ll give it a try.”

Then McCarrick gave the bishop an out. Or perhaps it was a veiled plea.

“The day that you find someone who can do it better, you let me know,” she said, “and I will put my resignation on your desk in the morning.”

McCarrick, who is in her final months with Catholic Charities and grappling with a $1 million shortfall in giving, recalled this story late last week from a conference room inside the agency’s mental-health counseling site, the Monsignor Carr Clinic in Buffalo.

“Nine years later,” McCarrick said, allowing herself a short burst a laughter, “I guess it’s worked out all right.”

McCarrick’s self-critique of her role as the leader of the annual appeal, which raises millions of dollars per year for the organization's broad range of services, is as understated as the small cross she wears on a thin chain around her neck. They fit the vows she took at age 24 to become a Franciscan nun — someone who, in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, commits to living a life of humility and service. When The Buffalo News requested this interview with her in the midst of her final fundraising campaign, McCarrick responded in an email, “I am not sure that I am very interesting, but I am at your service, and we can give it a try.”

So, how interesting has McCarrick managed to make her 70 years of life? Try this: She was born in Brooklyn the middle of three daughters, the eldest of whom would also grow up to become a sister, and the youngest of whom would one day become a family court judge. Her father, Fred McCarrick, married her mother, Noreen, when they were young, because he had been deployed to World War II. After the war, Fred went to college on the G.I. bill and got a government job as a customs worker. The McCarricks wanted to move their family out of the city, and Fred came home one day with a customs job posting for Niagara Falls.

“My mother said, ‘All I knew about Niagara Falls is that it was on the Shredded Wheat box,’ ” Sister Mary recalled. “With no more knowledge than that, they got on a train and moved to Niagara Falls.”

If they were seeking a better life, fate failed to deliver. Fred died of cancer at age 39, when his daughter Mary was only 8. Noreen raised the three girls alone and worked as a telephone operator. She often reminded her daughters that their father was with God, which young Mary grew to recognize as a comfort.

During her confirmation studies as a young Catholic, she read about St. Francis of Assisi and was taken by how he devoted himself to serving – and living among – people suffering from leprosy. It’s why she decided to become a Franciscan sister after high school, and it shaped her lifelong view on service. “I always wanted to be where the needs were great,” McCarrick said, “and the impact was possible.”

Sister Mary McCarrick, diocesan director of Catholic Charities for the last nine years, helps 1-year-old Jeremiah Watkins put on his shoe. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

McCarrick, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Rosary Hill College – now Daemen College – began her career teaching at the now-closed Bishop McMahon High School in Buffalo. She then shifted to social work, moving to the poorest county in Colorado to tackle the problem of malnutrition. The solution was teaching the residents how to raise and cook their own food, which McCarrick and her colleagues did by creating a rabbit cooperative.

The cooperatives fit neatly with her life of service. “They empower people, teach them entrepreneurship, and how to improve nutrition in their lives, which improves a lot of other things in your life,” she said. “It gives people dignity to take control over their own lives and better them.”

McCarrick spent much of her 30s in the social-work field. She went to graduate school in San Antonio, worked with families dealing with violence and sexual abuse, and did post-graduate work in family therapy at the University of Rochester. Turning 40 was a milestone for McCarrick, and for deeper reasons than most people. She realized she had outlived her father, and also two of her uncles, each of whom died at 39. “I really felt an additional sense of gratitude that life is a gift,” McCarrick said, “and I wanted to be sure that I was giving my life to God again.”

She took time off to go to a hermitage – a tiny house in the woods, where an individual can pray for long periods and perhaps go for several days without talking to anyone – and emerged ready to lead. She submitted her resume for director of the Benedict House, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that served people with HIV/AIDS. Robert Bennett, then the president of the United Way of Buffalo, was on the search committee. Bennett, who didn’t know McCarrick at the time, read her resume and told the group, “If she interviews well, this is the woman you want.”

McCarrick impressed the group, Bennett said, with her “unquestioned commitment to the people that were suffering.” Bennett, who today works closely with McCarrick as chair of Catholic Charities’ annual appeal, pointed out that in the early '90s, AIDS “was almost treated like leprosy, where you were a very bad person. They had to overcome that, and it was extraordinary, her compassion and care.”

In McCarrick’s next leadership role, as provincial minister of her Franciscan community, the Sisters at Stella Niagara, she created three high-impact programs in the Niagara Falls area: a Montessori school; a literacy program for second- and third-graders who were struggling to read; and the Heart, Love and Soul food pantry. During her eight years as provincial minister – a job that, like presidents, is limited to two four-year terms – McCarrick’s reputation was solidified as a smart, big-thinking, humble leader.

That made her an obvious choice for Kmiec to tap as a Catholic Charities leader in 2009, even if the job wasn’t one she wanted. “I get a lot more energy back from being with people than working with budgets,” McCarrick said. “Who wouldn’t?”

But she’s good with numbers, and her numbers are good. When McCarrick arrived at Catholic Charities in 2009, the agency had 128 donors who gave $1,000 or more, which accounted for about $900,000 in annual giving. Today, Catholic Charities has 1,483 donors giving $1,000 and above. That translates to $6.9 million in annual giving, and it comes against a dire challenge. Every year, McCarrick said, approximately 6,000 Catholics are buried in the eight-county Diocese of Buffalo — and only 2,000 are being baptized.

Sister Mary McCarrick chats with Robert Bennett, 2018 Appeal chairman and Catholic Charities trustee. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Bennett, who sat adjacent to McCarrick during this interview, lauded her ability to raise money even against such stark circumstances. “The skill of fundraising is the ability to tell stories,” Bennett said. “There isn’t a better storyteller.”

McCarrick, smiling and looking slightly embarrassed, demurred.

“No, seriously,” Bennett said. “And the story is always about somebody who got help. It’s a very compelling story, and you almost don’t have to ask for money.”

“I never ask,” McCarrick agreed.

“The story you told the other day was remarkable,” Bennett said, prompting McCarrick to share it now: She received a letter from a 10-year-old boy named Kyle, who was put into a foster home because his birth parents were separated and unable to care for him. When Kyle arrived at the home, he was struck by the simple things:

“Could they provide me with food, a bed and furniture?” he wrote. “When I got there I ran to the door and I went inside. I saw toys in buckets and this big blow-up fish. I also saw a refrigerator, a table, a bathroom and dogs.” Kyle was greeted at the door by a woman, whom he figured would be his mom. He wondered, though, where did the dad live? “But when I saw the dad,” he wrote, “I thought, ‘They must live together.’ ”

Kyle had no concept of a mom and dad living together. Nor did he have a concept of a loving, supportive, providing household — until he came to this one. His foster parents eventually adopted him. He wrote: “I would have a forever family!”

Stories like that one drive McCarrick, and she’s eager to experience them again from the grassroots, rather than a boardroom. After she leaves Catholic Charities, she’s planning to spend a month on retreat this summer, then discern what her next step will be. In what she acknowledges will “probably my last working decade,” she wants to “get back into doing more direct things,” perhaps by teaching or counseling.

“What I don’t want to do in of my life is spend a lot of time with budgets,” she said, “or raise money, either, or worry about how we’re going to hit the budget.”

That is today’s worry — and it is a worry. Catholic Charities’ appeal goal is $11 million. Asked about how the appeal is going, McCarrick’s answer is pointed. “Not well,” she said. “We’re at least $1 million behind where we would expect to be.”

So far, the appeal has raised just over $7 million; to be on track, the number should be just north of $8 million. There are a few factors at play, she said, including a separate diocesan capital campaign that raised $108 million and still has to collect $60 million of it. “People are very thoughtful around here,” McCarrick said. “They’ll write me a note and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help Catholic Charities until I finish paying my pledge.’ ”

McCarrick doesn’t avoid what is likely the largest challenge this year.

“We have certainly gotten some pushback around the clergy sex abuse,” she said, acknowledging an ongoing series of revelations over the past few weeks of diocesan priests who were accused of sexual misconduct with minors in previous decades. McCarrick, Bennett and other Catholic Charities officials have been working hard to spread the message that money donated to Catholic Charities is used only for the agency — not by the diocese to pay reparations to victims.

“It’s legal — money that comes to Catholic Charities stays at Catholic Charities,” she said. “It’s not able to be used for that. But people are just mad, and that’s kind of a knee-jerk response, I think.”

McCarrick’s final months at Catholic Charities, then, may be her most challenging ones.

But, she said quietly with a smile: “I like a challenge.”

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