A Higher Calling

A former nun spends her days in the Second Ward, trying to bring a better life to its Latinas

"She can be intimidating," says DeRosario with a laugh. "But she is funny. And she has never, never told me no. She is really something else."


As a child growing up in Southern California, Mary Jo May had no plans to become a nun. She wasn't even raised Roman Catholic. One of two children, the daughter of an appliance salesman and a homemaker, she says she dreamed of having 17 children and becoming "a teacher, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a newspaper reporter." Something of a troublemaker, May remembers the time she and a friend released a cow from a nearby dairy farm and led it into their classroom, which caused a near-riot.

May's friend Margaret Daly helped start El Centro in a tiny house on North Palmer Street.
Deron Neblett
May's friend Margaret Daly helped start El Centro in a tiny house on North Palmer Street.

As she grew older, May says, she had a desire to "search out the great mysteries of life" and decided the Catholic Church might be the place to do it. And, she adds, it was the early 1960s. Options for women were still limited.

"The expectations of the people I was friends with and the people I dated was 'You will be a wife,' " she remembers. But May wanted more. She eventually joined the Dominican Order and moved to Houston in 1962. The years in the convent were happy ones -- not that May conformed to the stereotypical image of a serious nun.

"Oh, she was always getting me in trouble," remembers longtime friend Ricki Janicek, a fellow former Dominican sister who now volunteers at El Centro.

Included among May's stunts was sneaking a cat inside the chapel and placing it near an elderly nun, who of course was deathly afraid of cats. ("She ended up standing up on one of the pews," says Janicek.) May also planned ill-fated tubing trips down local rivers; one ended with several nuns abandoned on the riverbank near a prison work farm.

"She was a free spirit, very much so," says Janicek.

May eventually started teaching in diocesan schools and built up a reputation as a tough but fair instructor. In 1977 the local bishop asked her to take the position of principal at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, down the street from where El Centro now stands. The school had gone through five principals in two years, and the situation was desperate. May agreed she would take on the position for five months. She ended up staying five years.

May dealt with problems in what would become a signature style. When the eighth-grade girls refused to stop sitting on a wall that surrounded the school, putting them at risk of harassment from passing pedestrians, May held an all-school assembly and made an important announcement.

"I said, 'If you're ugly, you can sit up on that wall,' " she says. " 'But if you're pretty, we want to make sure you're safe, and you shouldn't sit up on that wall.' So, of course, nobody ever sat up there again."

She also tried to bring in creative instructors, facilitated weekly teacher meetings and encouraged small student groups. Soon the school started to turn around. After five years May went to work as director of Guadalupe Area Social Services, a diocesan-run direct-service agency that tried to meet the needs of the poor in the community.

May kept the same approach that had worked at the Guadalupe school, and she didn't mince words when it came to dealing with city bureaucracy. In 1993 she made the Houston Chronicle when she complained about the way the city handled a community development grant that was supposed to go to Guadalupe. While May claimed she had to fight for three years to get the $100,000 grant that had been awarded to the agency, Houston's then-housing and community development director Margie Bingham argued that the plans for the money had not been clear and called May "totally unethical."

May fired off in the newspaper's story, and was quoted as saying, "What they do to us is what society does to the poor -- they try to put you in a dependent position since they control the resources you need."

"Someone called and asked me to comment on that," says May, remembering the piece. "I'm not about bashing people, but I think we need to open our eyes at how really out of touch with people the system can be."

And the system, says May, is desperately out of touch with the community in the Second Ward. Local residents agree.

"The city ignores us," says longtime resident Mary Medina, who has owned and operated a flower shop on Navigation Boulevard since 1949. "These sewer lines have been here since 1924. We need the city to fix our streets, to fix our drainage. It's a large fight."

The 83-year-old Medina, nicknamed the Godmother of the Second Ward, befriended May while Medina was serving on the parish council for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. "We were a gringa and a mexicana!" she laughs. "But she's a hard worker. And she's not afraid to speak her mind."

May decided to leave the sisterhood in 1995. She says the Diocese of Galveston-Houston decided to place Guadalupe Area Social Services under the direction of Catholic Charities. Some sisters who had been working there were given little warning before being told to leave. May says one nun in her late seventies who had been devoted to Guadalupe was told by the diocese to turn in her keys -- she wouldn't need to return the next day.

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