The story of Sr Margaret Farrell in LA — an unlikely rebel

A Rebel Nun? Rather, an Angel in a Rough Patch of Hollywood! — Michaela Haas

A visit with Sister Margaret Farrell at the Covenant House in Los Angeles.

On a bright sunny afternoon at two o’clock, a half-naked young man breaks through the electronically secured doors of the Covenant House in Hollywood. Blood gushes from wounds on his shaved head and neck. Sister Margaret Farrell dashes off to her office. She returns with a stack of fresh towels that she presses against his neck to stop the bleeding until the firemen respond to the emergency call.

Only minutes earlier, the streets had seemed clean, calm and deserted, but suddenly a guy had jumped out of a car to stab Margaret Farrell’s client, seemingly out of nowhere. Later she will visit her client in the emergency room and learn that he suffered a bad concussion and a brain trauma. “Gangs,” she says knowingly, “Maybe he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is possible that this was an initiation ritual for a newcomer in a gang, or a gang conflict.”

Margaret Farrell never knows what the day will bring, but she is prepared for almost anything. Since a visitor once tried to attack her, she has positioned her desk so that she can jump to the door faster than a client. The word “Hope” is nailed to the entrance, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” to the wall. Her tiny office must be the most crowded 60 square feet on the planet: It is filled to the brim with diapers, teddy bears, sneakers, clothes, makeup, cream, band aids, thank you cards, city forms, latex gloves — anything a client might need. Especially now, before the holidays when the nights get cold, any and every donation is welcome at the Covenant House and will be used to help the homeless. A photo shows her with a baby girl who was fished out of a trash can in Mexico. Next to the entrance a miniature Rottweiler statue serves as a piggy bank for donations, a bright pink plastic Jesus blesses her desk from above. Visitors may grab from the hodgepodge whatever they need — except for the Jesus and the Rottweiler. These she won’t part with.

Little gives away her Catholic denomination: Everybody is familiar with the black and white habit of Catholic nuns, but Margaret Farrell usually shows up for work in a flowery summer blouse and beige pants — a typical business uniform. “If I wore my nuns’ habit, people might be intimidated,” she says, “As a community, we wear simple dress.” For the last 12 years, the petite sister with the thick Irish accent has helped homeless youngsters in the Covenant House, which was founded by a Franciscan priest. In a way, Margaret Farrell is one of these “suspicious nuns” the Vatican has warned against. In April, the Vatican chastised the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), in which 80 percent of the American Catholic sisters are organized. Margaret Farrell’s order, the Sisters of Charity, is also part of the LCWR. The Vatican criticized the sisters for not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination and for spending too much time with the poor, the gay and the unfortunate. Rome even chided the nuns for featuring “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and punished the organization by subjecting it to the administration of three conservative bishops. Oh, Lord! Radical feminists in a group of ordained whose age averages 73?

Margaret Farrell prefers not to comment on the Vatican’s actions, she rather focuses on getting teenagers off the street, but she knows some of the prejudices only too well. “Some say, how can I, as a nun, surround myself with such people — gays, transsexuals, HIV-positive clients?” she says. “I usually respond: Read the Bible. Look which people Jesus surrounded himself with.”

After growing up in Southern Ireland with Catholic parents, Margaret decided to join the nuns at age 22. A novice friend later convinced her to travel to California with her. The friend took one of the first flights back home, and today is married with three kids, but Margaret stayed, because she discovered her cause of heart: helping the needy. The Sisters of Charity that she is part of commit themselves to an extra vow to take care of the poorest, and thus the Covenant House in Hollywood is the perfect place for her: It offers a second chance for young people who ended up on the streets. Every night a van makes the rounds, offering food, water and blankets. Margaret has helped hundreds of people, clients like Octavio Del Castillo, who got kicked out of his house at age 13, when he came out to his parents. He took to the streets, to crack, and then to Sister Margaret. “Without Sister Margaret I wouldn’t be alive today,” says Octavio who is now, at 25, a successful manager at a sandwich chain. “She is my mother, my godmother, my angel!” he raves. It is ironic that a large percentage of Sister Margaret’s clients come from Christian families and were disowned by their parents, when the children’s sexuality no longer fit their parents’ understanding of the Bible.

Many of her clients, including Octavio, therefore wanted nothing to do with her when they first met the Sister at Covenant House. “But Sister Margaret is different, because she is always there for you. Always,” says Octavio who has rediscovered his Christian faith through her and usually joins her on Sunday for church. A whole shelf in Sister Margaret’s cramped office is devoted to her clients who weren’t as lucky. There’s a picture of Ilea who died while riding his bike in Beverly Hills; Michael, who was shot on the street-walkers’ patch; and Jesse, who succumbed to HIV at age 20. Sister Margaret collected his ashes from the crematorium because his mother wanted nothing to do with him, even after his death.

Sister Margaret does not say a single critical word about the Church. “Jesus does not judge,” she says, and therefore she, too, feels she has no right to judge. She is an extremely rare caliber of person, tirelessly devoted to watching out for others. When I ask her what she likes to do in her spare time, she lights up and tells me that her favorite thing is to visit youngsters in prison. She has learned not to wear wire bras, because the metal won’t pass the security screenings at juvenile state prisons.

Even the young woman who wanted to physically assault her at their first meeting because she wanted nothing to do with a Catholic nun, has since succumbed to Sister Margaret’s kindness. Now the chapel in the Covenant House features that same young woman’s testament of gratitude to Sister Margaret: A colorful painting of two hands joining, with the words from Isaiah 41:13, “Do not be afraid, I will help you.” If Sister Margaret is a radical, we need more radicals.


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  1. Reading the above brought a tear to an old man’s face. God bless Sr Margaret and all those like her. Surely they are the true Christians among us.

  2. Paddy Moran says:

    It is curious that there has been no comment from readers on the life work of this woman Sr.Margaret Farrell.
    Similar work being carried out by Fr. Shay Cullen was the subject of the Radharc programme the night before last.
    While the TV programme was entitled ” pain is the price “, surely this article shows that “pain” is the shared experience of all missionaries who have brought the love of Jesus to the marginalised and the needy.

    This article with its pastoral insight is a light for the Church in Ireland and may well hold the key to unlocking reasons for the continuing tragedies surrounding the lives of teenagers in this country.

  3. The ACP, Sr Margaret Farrell, Martina Killeavy, Fr Peter McVerry and so many others, have one thing in common. They all work at the coalface of our Church. They work with people who are gay, straight, separated, poor, and all those marginalized in so many different ways. It appears to me that by their life experiences they become closer to the God of compassion and love, rather than the God of hellfire punishment, and rules, as preached by those within the walls of Rome. I truly believe all who work with our brothers and sisters where they find them are carrying out God’s work, rather than those who because of their position, are insulated from the problems of God’s people.
    Our Church is broken in so many ways. Where and when will the healing commence.

  4. I think using Sr. Farrell’s commendable work as a weapon to attack the magesterium is a total distortion. It is absolutely correct that many of the religious sisters have totally lost their way, and have been ambivalent, to put it mildly, about such evils as abortion & the ” gay ” agenda.

  5. Veritas, the magesterium must earn the respect of the faithful, rather than take it for granted as they have done for centuries. They must take a large part of the responsibility, for the divisions within our Church. As for the religous sisters who have lost their way, particularly in relation to abortion and the “gay” agenda, maybe you would enlighten me on their stand on these issues.

  6. Certainly Ger. Firstly I think the magesterium has earned the respect of the faithful. When we think of the unity of the Catholic Church compared with the sad disintegration of the reformation churches into thousands of different denominations ; much of this is due to the role of the magesterium. It’s a sad fact that many of the religious sisters have taken ambivalent attitudes towards abortion & the ” gay ” agenda. This is totally different to offering pastoral support to homosexuals ; they have actually endorsed the lifestyle.

  7. You are right VERITAS. The magisterium has played a major part in ensuring the unity of our Church.
    They have achieved this by their dictatorial attitude on all issues relating to Church, particularly through hellfire preaching, teaching, and insisting on blind fidelity by all the faithful. And YES both Priests and laity gave them that blind fidelity and total obedience which they demanded. All of that is in the past. The entire faithful are now more educated than times past. This was achieved through formal education, or simply through life experiences. The faithful are now beginning to question certain non core aspects of our faith, and welcome changes have taken place such as, the removal of limbo, churching of women after childbirth, and now female children can serve mass. Small but important changes which make me wonder why these practices were there in the first place.

    So when did we begin to question our blind fidelity? For me it was not so much the Ferns, Murphy, Ryan and other sex scandal reports, but rather the secrecy of the Pope, magisterium, and all those in positions within our Church, who by their actions believed that the institutional Church was more important than our abused brothers and sisters. Many people formally resigned from our Church. Others simply stopped practising. And others again decided to do what we can to dispense with the hypocrisy and establish a true Church of Christ where ALL OUR MEMBERS, FEMALE AND MALE ARE EQUALLY CHERISED. Many Priests, Nuns, and other religious are on the same wavelength, as we see when attending ACP meetings, and reading about others in ministry in other parts of the world. As I said in a previous post, these religious are at the coalface of our Church. They are supporting the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters, where they find them, and render to them Christ’s love and compassion. This is a far cry from the comfortable lives lived by all in the Vatican.

    Finally Veritas, your comment about certain nuns in the U.S. “endorsing the lifestyle of Homosexuals” is really beneath contempt. Unlike you and me these women have given their lives for the glory of God and the service of his people. I have often wondered why certain people, who contribute to this website, do not supply their names. In relation to you that question does not arise. If I possessed the same arrogance and dislike for those who serve their God through serving the most downtrodden of our brothers and sisters, then I would not state my name either.

  8. Sorry that you seem so angry with me Ger. I’m sure you hold your views in all sincerity. I would have to say I disagree with much of your post. But let’s agree to differ on this occasion. Further posting would probably increase the divide between us. Happy Christmas to you & yours.

  9. Veritas, thank you. I think all who put their views on the ACP website should thank them sincerely for giving us the opportunity. We may differ on certain issues, but by our contributions we show that we are committed Catholics. Happy Christmas to you and your’s. Who knows, we may cross swords again in the New Year.
    Keep smiling. Keep the faith.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    “many of the religious sisters have taken ambivalent attitudes towards abortion & the ” gay ” agenda. This is totally different to offering pastoral support to homosexuals ; they have actually endorsed the lifestyle.”

    Perhaps the issues have many grey areas that the sisters are better placed to grasp? And there is no such thing as “the lifestyle” — gays or lgbt folk have as great a variety of lifestyles as anyone else. Language can subtly convey and propagate prejudice.

  11. Very well said, Joe. Spot on as usual. And every good wish to you for 2013. I will look forward to your contributions to this site in the year ahead.

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