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For Sister Therese, Retirement Doesn't End Mission to Save Desperate Women

By Andrea V. Watson | September 21, 2016 5:25am
 St. Martin de Porres House of Hope is a drug recovery program.
St. Martin de Porres House of Hope is a drug recovery program.
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St. Martin de Porres House of Hope

WOODLAWN — Before Brenda Knight moved into St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, a drug-recovery program, she was constantly worrying where her next meal and bed would come from.

Knight was once addicted to marijuana, cocaine and alcohol — she became addicted to drugs in 2001 and quit her job. Eventually, she found herself homeless. She survived, she said, by staying with different family members, friends and a shelter. In 2013 Knight overdosed and woke up in a hospital.

Finally fed up with the lifestyle, the 56-year-old joined St. Martin de Porres House of Hope on Aug. 11, 2014.

Brenda Knight, left, and Sister Therese O'Sullivan at St. Martin de Porres House of Hope.

“This place has just been wonderful for me,” she said. “I’m a completely different person.”

In the past, she sought help before, but this last time was different, Knight said.

“I did that for my sister because she wanted me to but I wasn’t even ready then,” she said. “It took some years ... but when I came through these doors I knew that I was ready to change my way of living.”

Knight has completed all three phases of drug recovery at St. Martin de Porres House of Hope, located at 6423 S. Woodlawn Ave. She started working last April as a custodian for Sodexo, Inc. at O’Hare Airport and has been saving her money. She said she’s excited to get her own place again.

She thanks Sister Therese O’Sullivan for all of her help.

“She is a very nice woman,” Knight said. “She cares a lot about these women, all of them. If it weren’t for her, I wonder where I would be today.”

O’Sullivan, 77, co-founded St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in 1983 with businesswoman-turned-Roman Catholic nun, the late Connie Driscoll. The two were looking for a cause to devote their energies to when O'Sullivan's brother gave her a newspaper article detailing the plight of the needy in Chicago.

The building had no electricity at first and was illuminated only by streetlights at night. The two slept in the kitchen on cots. Today it has about 100 beds for women and their children.

O’Sullivan retired June 1, but aims to continue to offer mentoring.

For 33 years, O’Sullivan’s program has addressed the drug crisis through the women’s abstinence-based drug recovery home, serving more than 4,000 people since its inception. The only government assistance the program receives is state money for its food program, she said.

The three-phase recovery process offers the women substance abuse counselors, medical doctors, art, music and academic teachers and optional spiritual counseling. Towards the end of the program, residents receive job placement and housing referral services.

In its early days, the drug recovery home used to be a homeless women’s shelter. But O’Sullivan said she began to see that the reason many of the women were homeless was because they were addicted to drugs.

The home doesn’t allow for women to take medicines like methadone, Suboxone or benzodiazepines, which can be used to alleviate the affects of drug withdrawal. 

“Those types of drugs give you the feeling that you are high and that only produces something in your head to go out and get more,” she said. “If you’re going to get the program, you really have to give it up and stay that way.”

O'Sullivan said the experience of working with the women has been a privilege — some of the best years of her life.

“At first people never thought we would be able to do this, and they thought we were more radical, but we thought this was something that needed to be done,” she said.

St. Martin de Porres House of Hope will honor O’Sullivan in a retirement gala Sept. 29. More than 200 people are expected to attend the ticketed gala at The Grand Ballroom, 6351 S. Cottage Grove Ave. at 6 p.m.

“We are excited to honor Sister Therese, a compassionate and empathetic person who has worked tirelessly and faithfully to help women overcome substance abuse,” said Mary Whalen, a board member. “Sister has given her life here. She is a treasure to the women served and the community.”

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