July 10, 2020

From bullets to blessings, two sisters live their faith in a ‘Miracle Place’ for 20 years

For 20 years, Providence Sisters Barbara McClelland, left, and Rita Ann Wade have made it their mission to add another layer of joy, hope and love to the lives of children and families in a near eastside Indianapolis neighborhood. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

For 20 years, Providence Sisters Barbara McClelland, left, and Rita Ann Wade have made it their mission to add another layer of joy, hope and love to the lives of children and families in a near eastside Indianapolis neighborhood. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

They started their dream in a house where most of the windows had been shattered by bullets.

They started their dream when the odds, the doubters and even a sign in the neighborhood were against them.

The odds and the doubters said there was no way that two religious sisters—one who was 70 at the time and the other just past 50—could move into a neighborhood known for its crime and violence and help transform it into a place of hope and community, a place where “the miracle of God’s presence becomes a reality.”

Yet Sister Rita Ann Wade and Sister Barbara McClelland held onto that belief in a near eastside Indianapolis neighborhood where a vandal had defiantly changed a “Neighborhood Crime Watch Area” sign to read “Neighborhood Crime Area.”

The two Sisters of Providence also held onto their memories of the neighborhoods where they grew up: places where people felt safe, where adults looked out for each others’ children, and where neighbors shared problems and celebrated special times together.

Now 20 years have passed since they decided to do everything they could to live their dream in a setting they call “Miracle Place.” The vandalized sign is gone. Instead, the most telling words in the neighborhood are etched permanently into the sidewalk near the once bullet-riddled house: “We are miracles.”

Best of all, there are the breakfast get-togethers that usually take place on two Saturday mornings each month—gatherings marked by Sister Barbara and Sister Rita beaming as a joyous group of children and parents from the neighborhood mixes easily with volunteers and supporters of the sisters’ mission.

“It’s absolutely my favorite time,” Sister Barbara says. “It has taken a while for it to happen, but what we hoped for is epitomized during that time. One of our goals is for all of us to know each other as persons—not poor, not wealthy, not white, black or Hispanic. When we all come together, God’s presence is evident. It’s what I think heaven will be like.”

‘There’s a reason we call this Miracle Place’

As tough as the situation was when the sisters first came to the neighborhood, this time of the coronavirus crisis has been even more difficult for them.

Miracle Place has been closed since mid-March. The sisters hope to re-open their neighborhood refuge sometime in August.

“We miss everybody,” Sister Barbara says. “We miss the kids terribly.”

As they wait for that reunion, they trust in God’s timing, just as they always have—including the inspiration that Sister Rita received for the name of “Miracle Place.”

“I believed that God would take care of us—that little things, little miracles would happen along the way,” she says.

And they have.

Before they even found the right house for their dream, they showed a proposal for their plan to a businessman, asking him to share his thoughts and advice. He told them he didn’t think it would work. Then he gave them a $50,000 donation to start it.

While the house was being renovated for their purposes, a group from the neighborhood association was planting new trees along the street when they asked the sisters if they would like one planted in their front yard.

“We said ‘yes,’ and they planted this stick,” Sister Barbara recalls with a smile that shows she’s absolutely delighted about what she’s about to share. “Later, a lady came to plant flowers in our yard, and she said, ‘Oh, you have a linden tree!’

“We were so proud because Mother Theodore (Guerin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence) used to send little seedlings of linden trees to new missions.”

Right across the street from where that linden tree now towers was an abandoned home. Several years ago, the house burned down, and the sisters learned the lot was available for $3,500. At the time, a friend of the sisters stopped by Miracle Place to donate clothes. When he asked about the sisters, a secretary told him they were fine, but they were trying to find a way to buy that lot and make it a park for the neighborhood children.

“The next day, he brought a check for $3,500,” says Sister Barbara. A few seconds later, she adds that last year they received $25,000 for playground equipment for the park.

Now, it’s Sister Rita’s turn with a story that’s either a tale of Providence, a tale of sisterly persuasion or a tale of generosity—or a blend of all three.

“One night, I called Nick Melloh and said, ‘Would you have breakfast with us tomorrow?’ ” Sister Rita recalls. “We talked to him and told him we needed more space, we needed a capital campaign.’ We said, ‘Nick, will you do it?’ He said he had to talk to his wife. The next day, he said yes.”

Melloh and his wife Lisa led a capital campaign that raised more than $500,000, leading to the construction of the beautiful community center next door to Miracle Place. Once an abandoned house, the community center is now a gathering space that also includes a small food pantry and playrooms for the children.

“There’s a reason we call this Miracle Place,” Sister Rita says.

The powerful combination of steely wills and welcoming smiles

Besides the two sisters, no one has followed the development of Miracle Place more closely than Joe Wade, Sister Rita’s younger brother who first led them to the house at 940 Temple Avenue.

“I owned it and rented it to tenants,” he recalls. “When I first showed it to them, they weren’t too impressed, but they asked me to show it to them again the next day. Between that Friday night and Saturday morning, many of the windows of that building had been shot out. They opted to begin their ministry there.”

Just as the bullets and shattered windows didn’t make the sisters flinch, nor did an assessment of the area from the chief of the Indianapolis Police Department at the time, Wade recalls.

“There was a lot of violence in the neighborhood. The police chief said they were getting into a very challenging and difficult situation. But they were determined to do it.”

That determination flows from the sisters’ mutual steely wills, which are often overlooked because of their usual welcoming smiles.

Before they started Miracle Place, Sister Barbara had been the principal of Holy Cross Catholic School in Indianapolis for 15 years. She had seen the hardships and heartaches of inner-city life, including having to comfort the mother of a former student who had killed his father, her husband.

And Sister Rita’s 22 years as a chaplain at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis taught her the importance of individual care for people facing difficult times.

Together, they had seen it all, and they still wanted to try a new way to make a difference in the lives of children and families.

Besides the two monthly Saturday breakfasts, Miracle Place is normally open Tuesday through Friday from 1-6 p.m.—times when the children in the neighborhood usually fill the place with energy and joy as they do homework, create art projects and seek the love and attention of the sisters and the staff.

“We just knew we wanted to do something with the children and the senior citizens,” says Sister Rita, who also was a teacher in her earlier career.

Sister Barbara nods and adds, “When the children come here after school, the mothers come over here for coffee and cookies and a little respite. We’ve always wanted to have real connections with the neighbors. Our ministry is focused on relationships. The beautiful thing that has happened is that Miracle Place has become a home to the children. They sense the place belongs to them.”

Still, ever the educators, the sisters have expectations of the children.

“We tell them they’re ‘Miracle Place children,’ and because of that, they’re held to a higher standard to behave and be polite in school,” Sister Barbara says. “And we do pray with the kids so they’ll know God is there for them, and their guardian angels are there for them.”

Helen Batts uses the same word—“angels”—to describe the sisters. A grandmother, she lives in the neighborhood, volunteers there and has 10 of her grandchildren come there.

“Sister Rita and Sister Barbara are like angels who were sent here,” Batts says. “They know our struggles and our needs. They listen when we need someone to talk to. They’re like mentors and counselors to all of us. And my grandchildren love it there.”

Besides volunteering there, Batts joins her daughters and other women in the neighborhood to cook a community breakfast on the last Saturday of the month at Miracle Place, to show their appreciation.

“And when I get a little extra, I try to give back,” says Batts, who works as a clerk at a supermarket. “They’ve done so much for us.”

At 17, Juniaya Hampton says she’s found a home at Miracle Place in the three years she’s been coming there.

“You feel you belong,” she says. “It’s outgoing there. It’s spiritual. It’s loving. It’s just a place where you feel at home. And I love the sisters. They’re nice. They do things for people, no matter what. And they’re a good support for you.”

‘The miracle of God’s presence’

Since Miracle Place opened 20 years ago, its presence has also helped to transform the physical look of the neighborhood.

Joe Wade notes that 20 of the

houses in the neighborhood were upgraded with new roofs, new gutters, new windows and new units for heating and air-conditioning—through a $500,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank.

“And the city complemented that with new sidewalks,” he says. “Owners take greater pride in the neighborhood. Before, there was violence and tension and civic neglect.”

He marvels at the difference the sisters have made in their 20 years in the neighborhood.

“God alone knows the good that has been accomplished, but by any human assessment, it’s been incredible,” he says. Then he makes a comment that only a younger brother can try to get away with: “How did two women of their age do that?!” Suddenly realizing that comment may earn him a steely look from the sisters, he cuts back to the essence of what they have done: “They came up with a ministry that made a neighborhood more humane.”

As the sisters have left their mark on their neighbors and their neighborhood, they’ve also touched the lives of countless volunteers and supporters of Miracle Place during the past 20 years.

Tim Falvey offers a wonderful example of how the sisters have that touch.

Sister Rita was his fifth-grade teacher at Holy Cross School in the mid-1960s, and he became acquainted with Sister Barbara as an adult when she was the principal there. When he walked into a Steak n’ Shake restaurant one day 16 years ago, he saw the sisters and talked with them. Before long, they asked him to be on their board. And eight years ago, when he missed a board meeting because he was in South Africa, he returned to find he had been voted to be the board’s president.

He still is.

“It’s been wonderful,” Falvey says about his connection to Miracle Place. “It’s the two sisters. They really taught me at the very basic level how to live your faith. There’s a boots-on-the-ground aspect to it. And that’s neat.”

He insists that the true gift of Miracle Place is summed up in the last sentence of its mission statement: “The miracle of God’s presence becomes a reality.”

“It really helps if people are the conduits for God’s presence,” he says. “If you offer people a smile, a hug, a belief that we care about you—it makes a difference. It’s as simple as that. That’s what the appeal is for so many people. It’s so grassroots they want to participate. It’s our faith in action.”

The deepening of a friendship

That faith uplifts the sisters as they wait for the right time to re-open Miracle Place. So does the joy they get from their thoughts and memories of all the children who have blessed their lives during the past 20 years.

Sister Rita smiles as she recalls, “A child who was here came back to visit when he was in high school. He asked, ‘Is my picture still hanging in the art room?’ ”

Sister Barbara remembers the visit of a young man in the past year, a young man who had spent a number of years at Miracle Place: “He brought his three small sons back to show us. He’s so proud of them. He wants his children to come here.”

Their hopes for such bonds are what first inspired their dream of Miracle Place.

Their dream has also led to two more special gifts, starting with the deepening of their friendship during the past 20 years.

“I knew that if this was going to succeed, I wanted to work with Barbara on it—because we knew one another, and we enjoyed one another,” Sister Rita says. “There was always the hope and the prayer that in working together, nothing would destroy that friendship. Although we were very close in the beginning, we can now finish each other’s sentences.”

Their 20 years together at Miracle Place has also created an even closer relationship with God.

“It has deepened our appreciation of Providence,” Sister Rita says. “We may wonder initially if something will work out, and then we find that God has blessed it.”

Sister Barbara adds, “For me, that growing trust in Providence means I look at what has transpired in the past 20 years. How can I ever doubt that God will take care of whatever we need?”

(For more information on Miracle Place, including its mission, activities, and ways to contribute, go to amiracleplace.org.)

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