Our Founders: Sister Paulette Honeygosky



Obituary: Paulette Honeygosky / Firebrand nun who worked tirelessly for the poor and needy

Sept. 19, 1930 - Feb. 17, 2011

February 22, 2011 12:00 AM

By Vivian Nereim Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Varyingly viewed as a guardian of the poor, a pain in the neck, a fighter for justice and a "hip Joan of Arc," Sister Paulette Honeygosky was no typical nun.

She wore her veil nearly everywhere, through the streets of McKees Rocks and later Washington, D.C., feeding, clothing, aiding and soothing the indigent and elderly.

But beneath the veil, the Clairton native was a tiny firebrand. She was bodily removed from multiple public meetings while arguing causes -- the microphone cord pulled to silence her -- and she was arrested at least eight times.

"Sorry ... the cloistered life just isn't for me," Sister Paulette told The Pittsburgh Press in 1971. "Particularly in a society troubled by so many unmet needs."

Sister Paulette, of Arlington, Va., died Thursday after a stroke, relatives said. She was 80.

One of Allegheny County's best-known nuns in her heyday, Sister Paulette confronted and challenged McKees Rocks power holders from 1969 to 1981, co-founding a small storefront effort called Focus on Renewal. She left a lasting legacy: The community development organization now serves about 15,000 people annually.

"She was only about 5 foot 2, and she weighed probably 90 pounds soaking wet," said the Rev. Regis Ryan, FOR's director. "But she was totally dedicated to working with and fighting for the underdog, especially the elderly."

A teenaged admirer of the nun told The Pittsburgh Press she was "a hip Joan of Arc."

But despite her confrontational style, Sister Paulette was tender to those she served, friends said. She told The Pittsburgh Press in 1983 that her warmest memory of McKees Rocks was buying a canary for a lonely woman on Chartiers Avenue.

"The only trouble was I didn't have the money to pay for it," she said, describing the deal she cut with a pet store owner. "I still remember the joy of that lady who got the canary to cut through her loneliness."

"The poor were more important to her than her life," said her sister, Mary Ann McNew, of Pleasant Hills.

The third of seven children, Sister Paulette grew up in Clairton during the Great Depression, watching her mother bake bread to feed needy neighbors, Ms. McNew said.

She decided in eighth grade that she wanted to become a nun, later joining the Vincentian Sisters of Charity in McCandless, her sister said. She received a bachelor's degree from Duquesne University and a master's degree from St. Bonaventure University.

Sister Paulette was encouraged to go McKees Rocks. A large proportion of residents in the borough live below poverty level, struggling to make ends meet.

Sister Paulette launched FOR with the Rev. Donald Fisher in 1969 with a minute budget, first setting up a credit union, then adding after-school programs, a lending library, a senior center and a health clinic. Today, FOR offers programs to people across the area, providing a variety of services: a butterfly garden, chemical dependency support groups, a food pantry, legal aid.

"I still believe that the FOR is and should be 'every neighborhood's story,' " Sister Paulette said in an e-mail about the organization's recent 40th anniversary. "Neighbors helping neighbors: That's the gospel. It's the Golden Rule. It's the way to live a meaningful life of service to others."

Father Ryan said Sister Paulette was a tireless advocate. If someone was sick, she stayed with them overnight. If someone needed a ride, she drove them.

She also raised her fair share of trouble -- more than her fair share, her opponents argued: In 1975, former McKees Rocks Mayor John Kyle asked Bishop Vincent Leonard to muzzle or transfer Sister Paulette, accusing her of political agitation. The bishop refused.

That same year, Sister Paulette was arrested and fined after a fracas at a borough council meeting. She sued borough officials, winning the right to speak as a designated spokesman, but it was not the last time she was arrested for disrupting a meeting.

"Nothing was too monumental -- nor picayunish -- for Sister Paulette to tackle," read a Post-Gazette article marking her eventual departure. "She struck out at nepotism and nabobs of the borough, and she did it with relish and passion and unorthodoxy."

Sister Paulette left McKees Rocks in 1981 for a retreat center in Chicago to re-evaluate "the direction I was to take in life," she told the Post-Gazette. From Chicago, she moved to Alabama, then to Washington, D.C.

There, she was involved in many projects, including a program aiding the estimated 4,300 homeless people. Sister Paulette roamed the city, distributing blankets and coffee to those without shelter.

"I live with the continued hope that what I saw in McKees Rocks will happen here," she told The Pittsburgh Press in 1983.

Sister Paulette stayed in the Washington, D.C., area, collaborating with universities, speaking at churches about her distant relative St. Faustina and self-publishing many books. Until her death, she continued to minister to the needy, her sister said.

"I don't know when she had any spare time, because I used to ask her, 'When do you sleep, sister?' " Ms. McNew said.

At the nun's Virginia funeral, "the church was packed with the poor," Ms. McNew said. "I'm her sister, but I didn't know how much she had done in the world."

In addition to Ms. McNew, Sister Paulette is survived by a brother, Dr. Robert Honeygosky, of Washington, D.C. A memorial service for Sister Paulette was held Monday at St. Louise Convent in McCandless.