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At 76, Sister Joan Foley works tirelessly for the homeless

When you feel a calling to make a difference in the world, it's hard to know when to quit.

Just ask Sister Joan Foley.

The 76-year-old nun founded the Connections job development program in 1991 in New Port Richey to help homeless families in Pasco, but this spring she figured she'd retire, turning over the reins to Judy Tilton.

But there was this one last thing left to do.

Foley, who serves in the order of Medical Mission Sisters, had for years wanted to open an office in eastern Pasco. It's a wide county, and homeless folks there could hardly be expected to take advantage of services more than an hour away.

But now, on a recent Tuesday morning, Foley sat in the Crescent Center in Dade City waiting for two people who had signed up for job counseling. She waited and waited. They didn't show up. But Foley was undeterred. She vowed to keep driving from her home in New Port Richey on Tuesday mornings until east Pasco residents start taking advantage of the free services.

"A good missionary works themselves out of a job, then moves on to something else," she said with a smile.

At a time when most people are slowing down, Foley looks forward to her next challenge.

"There's too much to do out there," she said.

She keeps the same sense of urgency that gripped her more than half a century ago, when as a 22-year-old lab technician in Washington, D.C, she was inspired by the Medical Mission Sisters she encountered at the Georgetown University medical school. Her service with the Philadelphia-based order took Foley to the bustling streets of Pakistan and later Bangladesh, where she worked as a lab tech and hospital administrator.

She recalled the joy of teaching young Pakistani men medical lab skills and watching them run the place themselves.

After she returned home in 1974, Foley helped open the first primary care clinic in a small, predominantly black community on the North Carolina coast. Later she worked in other rural communities in Georgia, then held leadership positions for the Medical Mission Sisters before moving to St. Petersburg in 1987.

Today Foley is one of 625 Medical Mission Sisters serving in 23 countries around the world. Their ranks thin as older nuns pass from the scene and fewer young women choose the celibate, frugal life of a nun. Young people these days find other ways to live out their religious faith.

But for Foley and the other sisters, the mission is always clear: never stop trying to help those in desperate need, especially the homeless, whose numbers are on the rise.

She and other local activists for the homeless are trying to create a resource center for homeless men and women to pick up mail, use the phone, get medical referrals — whatever they need to get back on their feet.

"Helping others help themselves is what I feel called to do," she said.

And from that, she can never retire.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at askerritt@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

At 76, Sister Joan Foley works tirelessly for the homeless 04/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 8:44am]
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