Café Reconcile executive director celebrates 25th jubilee

Sister Mary Lou Specha PBVM    Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sister Mary Lou Specha, executive director of Reconcile New Orleans, Inc., celebrated 25 years of religious life with a Mass and celebration Sept. 3 in Dubuque, Iowa.
    Sister Mary Lou joined two other silver jubilarians for prayer and a dinner at Mount Loretto, the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Presentation.
    Sister Mary Lou, the daughter of Lorraine and the late William Specha of Oak Lawn, Ill.,  entered the Presentation Sisters in 1986. She professed first vows in 1989 and celebrated her permanent commitment as a Sister of the Presentation in 1993.
    Sister Mary Lou earned a bachelor of science degree with a major in physical education at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill., and served as youth coordinator at Resurrection Parish in Dubuque. She has a master of divinity degree from Loyola University in Chicago.
    She was involved with youth and campus ministry at Iowa State University and at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).
    Sister Mary Lou always wanted her coworkers at UNI to “walk with the poor.” They organized mission trips to Appalachia and Mexico and advocacy for justice issues as part of their campus ministry actions. All the time, she kept hearing a voice that spoke through a young person on her staff at the UNI campus ministry: “We need to go to New Orleans.”
One visit, and she stayed
    The voice haunted Sister Mary Lou, and by December 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, she connected through Catholic Charities and took a group of UNI students to New Orleans.
    “The destruction and devastation were overwhelming,” she said. “The Salvation Army was there. And, Catholic sisters were there.”
    The Presentation Sisters, who now staff a collaborative ministry in New Orleans, Lantern Light, Inc., were scheduled to begin the week Katrina hit. So, instead of working from a building, they worked from the trunk of a car and carried on a mobile mission to those affected by Katrina.
    Today, Lantern Light operates in partnership with the Vincentian Community, the Jesuits and Catholic Charities in the Hispanic ministry from the Rebuild Center at 1802 Tulane Ave.
    “By their witness, the Presentation Sisters at Lantern Light helped me recapture the spirit of why I came to religious life,” Sister Mary Lou said. “When I first saw the Presentation Sisters at Guadalupe School in Chicago where I was a PE teacher, I was drawn to the charism of our foundress Nano Nagle – service to the poor. The sisters had an important presence in that poor community. They taught me to know the people, walk with and don’t judge them and serve them.”
    Sister Mary Lou has served as the executive director of Reconcile New Orleans for the last three years. She leads a community of people committed to addressing the system of generational poverty, violence and neglect.
    “This ministry provides a great opportunity for me as a woman religious,” she said. “I know the players in town – the mayor, police chief, and others. They have a respect for me and for what we at Reconcile New Orleans do. They want to hear what’s going on and how we engage young people as ‘grass-roots’ agents and as mentors.”
    Hospitality and care are central in Sister Mary Lou’s life in New Orleans.
    “I see young people’s potential to uses God’s gifts,” she said. “I’m so appreciative for having experienced hospitality at the very core of what it means when someone says, ‘Miss Mary Lou, come on in, share what we have, come be with us.’”

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