NEW YORK — Sister Mary Rose McGeady — the Roman Catholic nun who resuscitated Covenant House, the nation’s largest network of shelters for homeless youngsters, following a sex abuse scandal involving its founder — died last Thursday at her order’s convent in Albany. She was 84.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Kevin M. Ryan, president of Covenant House.
“If there’s a more important job in America today than taking care of our troubled young people, I’m certainly not aware of it,” Sister Mary Rose said when she was chosen to lead Covenant House in 1990, after the resignation of the Rev. Bruce Ritter.
Ritter, who had founded the organization on the Lower East Side of Manhattan 22 years earlier, stepped down after several young men, some former Covenant House residents, accused him of sexual abuse. He adamantly denied the accusations.
An independent investigation commissioned by the organization found that although none of the sexual allegations could be proved, enough evidence existed, including evidence of financial irregularities, to warrant Ritter’s dismissal. No criminal charges were brought against him.
By then, with donations nearing $80 million a year, Covenant House was providing services to 28,000 homeless young people in 11 cities across the country and in Latin America. But within a year of Ritter’s resignation, donations had fallen to $42 million, forcing the reduction of services throughout the network. In New York City, an outreach center was closed and more than 100 beds in shelters were eliminated (including a floor for youths infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS), as were two of the three vans that took youngsters off the streets on frigid nights.
By the time Sister Mary Rose retired in 2003, donations had climbed to nearly $130 million and new shelters had been opened in 11 cities, among them Oakland, Calif.; Anchorage; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Managua, Nicaragua. Under her direction, the organization’s hot line became a 24-hour service. Covenant House now provides service in 26 cities and says it reaches more than 50,000 youngsters a year.
Ryan, who called Sister Mary Rose “the Mother Teresa of street kids,” said, ‘”Come hell or high water, she was determined to clean up Covenant House. From ashes, really, she pulled Covenant House forward.”
Even as a teenager, Mary Rose McGeady was serving children. Born in Hazleton, Pa., she was one of three children of Joseph and Catherine McGeady. The family later moved to Washington, where she attended Immaculate Conception Academy, operated by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. As a high school student, she spent every Saturday at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum.
She joined the order in 1946. ‘‘I wanted to remain part of the community,’’ she said. ‘‘When I told my parents, my mother cried. My father told me to give it a try, and if I did not like it I could come home.’’
Sister Mary Rose graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston with a degree in sociology in 1955 and six years later received a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Fordham University. By then she had already worked with homeless and disturbed children at a child-care center in Boston and served as director of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
She was an associate director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn when she was chosen to lead Covenant House.
She leaves a sister, Catherine Pendleton.
When she retired in 2003, Sister Mary Rose said, ‘‘I wish I could wave a wand and mend a child’s broken heart.’’
Magically or not, her efforts helped Tracy Jones-Walker, who was a teenager wandering the streets of Brooklyn, in 1990. Her family, immigrants from Guyana — including 16 brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews — lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. After a fight with one of her sisters, said Jones-Walker, she ‘‘left the house and didn’t go back.’’ She ended up at the Covenant House crisis center on West 41st Street in Manhattan.
‘‘Now I’m a senior analyst at a Wall Street firm,’’ she said in an interview. ‘‘Had it not been for Covenant House, I would have been lost.’’