Sister’s South End ministry to continue despite building sale Sister Eustace, friend to the poor

Every morning for the past 18 years, a truck pulls up to the basement door of the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center in the South End and unloads hundreds of loaves of bread. This bread is the center of the longtime service to the poor and needy through the ministry of Sister Eustace Caggiano, CSJ.

"I'd say that the bread is the highest point in our ministry," stated Sister Eustace, a vibrant 90-year-old. "They wait for the door to open for bread ... it's a great saving for them ... and it's all free."

The old Boston Penny Bank Building across from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross has been known for years as a haven for the needy. For over 30 years, the resource center there has been serving the homeless, the poor, and immigrants in Boston.

The basement of the resource center, which is occupied by Sister Eustace’s ministry, is filled with clothing, blankets, mattresses, towels, dishes, shoes, food, and every household good imaginable, all of which is given freely to the needy. For the past 32 years, Sister Eustace has supervised the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center, not seeing it as work, but as a friendship with the poor.

"Oh, I'm friends with all of them. They keep coming back because it's a meeting place; it's like home to some of them," she said happily. "We don't keep track of numbers. You're not here for figures, you're just gonna help the person and that's it ... it's been a joy."

"I see a lot of poverty that [other] people wouldn't see or you wouldn't hear about," Sister Eustace continued. "They would tell me, but maybe they wouldn't tell you. After all, there's a little pride there."

All the goods at the resource center are donated and then hung on racks or displayed on shelves. “Some people say it looks like Filene’s Basement here,” she said, noting the importance of presenting the goods in a respectful way. “You have to give [the needy] a little dignity. It’s bad enough that they’re poor.”

Walking amongst the donated clothing and shoes, Sister Eustace said that, miraculously, there is never a shortage of anything. “I never ask for any of it. It just comes in. That’s the beauty of it,” she continued. “What does that tell you — that the Lord wants us here.”

It’s the donors that Sister Eustace credits for the success of the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center. One benefactor, a former Cathedral High School student who wishes to remain anonymous, has paid for the daily delivery of the bread to the center throughout the program’s 18 years.

"He's wonderful. He does it from his heart." Sister Eustace said of the donor. "The only time we hear from him is if the driver is going to be a little late, and its only like a half hour ... he's never missed a day."

The resource center was started in the 1960s as the Cardinal Cushing Spanish-Speaking Center by the late Father Ernest T. Serino, who was assigned to the cathedral at the time. Father Serino began the center to help the waves of immigrants coming into the country. The center provided, among other things, English classes, furniture, food, and clothing.

At the time, a younger Sister Eustace was working as the cook for the Sisters of St. Joseph living in the convent then located next to Cathedral High School. Sister Eustace began volunteering at the center until Father Serino recruited her full-time in 1972.

Sister Eustace proudly explained that she quickly learned Spanish upon taking up her position at the center. She recalled the “waves of immigrants” that came to the United States with nothing. The resource center, she said, helped them to get started in this country.

"People would refer them to us. They wouldn't know about us -- they only knew someone who knew us and they knew that we would help them," she explained. "Of course, we were happy to help them because it made us happy, because when you help someone else you're always happy."

Sister Eustace helped Crang Vu when she and her family came from Vietnam 11 years ago. According to Sister Eustace, the resource center sponsored them and paid for their trip to the United States.

"When they came from their country, we set up the whole apartment: living room dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms," recalled Sister Eustace. "We even turned their beds down for them the first night. We didn't get home until 2 a.m. and we had a rice cooker with hot rice for them when they came in."

Vu has repaid Sister Eustace and the center by volunteering there since she emigrated. “She’s learned a lot of English working here,” Sister Eustace proudly states.

"It's very good [working here]," Vu said shyly, with Sister Eustace by her side.

Over the years, the influx of immigrants has subsided and bulk of the services of the resource center, El Centro del Cardinal, have moved from the Penny Bank Building to the former convent. The building is now vacant except for the basement. Catholic Charities funds the center and decided to sell the mostly vacant building and move the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center to another location.

Sister Eustace claims that she became aware of the decision when she read about the sale of the building in the newspapers.

"I did not know that the building was sold. That's what hurt -- that I didn't know. I had to read it in the paper," she said. "I was aggravated because [the newspaper] called this building an eyesore ... you don't judge a book by its cover. They don't know what went on in this building and the sacrifices that people made to run this building."

However, Sister Eustace said that she expected the day to come when the resource center would have to move.

"I knew I was the only one in the building and that [a move] would come eventually because I've been here a long time by myself ... common sense would tell you that. The building is very beautiful, so I knew, eventually, that the day would come."

Dr. Joseph Doolin, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, has assured Sister Eustace that she will have a place to continue her ministry. Together, they have surveyed the South End neighborhood looking for a new location. They currently have five properties in mind.

While the work of finding Sister Eustace a new location will be a “challenge,” Dr. Doolin was grateful that a benefactor had reportedly stepped forward to fund the work of the Cardinal Cushing Resource Center.

Keeping Sister Eustace’s age in mind, Catholic Charities is also looking for “a person, preferably another sister, to work alongside Sister Eustace,” said Dr. Doolin. “We don’t want the work to stop and she doesn’t want the work to stop.”

According to Dr. Doolin, two people from his office informed Sister Eustace that Catholic Charities was in the process of selling the building.

Father Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, while saying that Sister Eustace was aware the building was for sale, also admitted she was not informed that the building had actually been sold.

"Sister Eustace is correct in saying that no one told her that the building was sold," he said. "That was a slip. It's unfortunate that it appears as if the archdiocese were evicting her without any notice or help in any way. That was just not the case."

"Sister Eustace and her ministry are important," he continued. "She and the archdiocese want it to continue."

According to Father Coyne, the building’s new owner, PSB Investments LLC, has agreed to allow the resource center to remain in the building for the coming months. Sister Eustace said she is grateful that Sean P. McGrath of PSB investments said she could stay in the building until at least the spring.

At 90, Sister Eustace shows no signs of slowing down. She plans to continue her work of helping the poor for as long as she has the strength to do so.

"I'll go to nursing homes and talk to people," she said. "There are a lot of lonely people out there. I think if you keep yourself busy you won't age very fast."