September 1, 2009
An old Irish proverb graces Bridget Shaheen's modest office in Lawrence: "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live." In the shelter of Lazarus House Ministries on humble Holly Street, executive director Shaheen, who walks the Christian talk on how to love, oversees the provision of immediate support, food, training, shelter, and medical and dental care to those who have none in this working class city of immigrants that ranks the poorest in New England. Some 84 percent of its public schoolchildren live below the poverty line, 53 percent of its high school students are classified as dropouts, and half the adults in the community have no secondary school diploma, perpetuating the distressing cycle.
Today, Shaheen, her devoted staff of 58 and scores of Lazarus House volunteers and contributors carry out the call of St. John Chrysostom, a third-century Archbishop of Constantinople, who once counseled, "It is more noble to feed the hungry than raise the dead." And feed they do. Lazarus House Ministries, a Catholic, gospel-based outreach, was established in 1983 as a five-bed emergency shelter for the homeless. It has since expanded to 41 beds and six cribs in the emergency shelter, a soup kitchen that feeds up to 200 a day, an emergency food pantry that supplies food to about 400 families weekly, thrift stores, housing for those affected with HIV/AIDS, a free medical and dental clinic, a job training center, child care, and educational programs. Reliant mostly on private contributions, the Lazarus House Ministries, with less than one percent government funding, touches the lives of 8,000 individuals each month.
"The goal of the Lazarus House is to teach people to fish," says Shaheen, 62, in reference to the ministry's mission of teaching self-sufficiency and yet total spiritual dependence on Christ. "But when people are hungry, they cannot hear anyone's teaching. So first we must feed them."
Involved with the ministry from its inception, Shaheen, a second-generation Irish American with ties to County Cork and County Monaghan, has closely followed the example of founder Tom Petitte, a Marist brother and teacher at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence. Petitte, after three summers in the early '80s working under Mother Teresa in Calcutta, brought home a defining message. "Thank you for being here," Mother Teresa told departing volunteers from around the world, "but you really need to go home to your countries and take care of the poor." She then looked squarely at Petitte and said, "Especially in America, where the poor are not only physically but spiritually poor." Petitte, the only American in the group, returned to Lawrence with a resolve to put Mother Teresa's words into selfless action. He immediately engaged a willing Shaheen in the cause.
The daughter of a former state representative who had served on Beacon Hill with Tip O'Neill, Shaheen had just the right political instincts and self-sacrificing perseverance for implementing Brother Petitte's vision. Her sparsely furnished office is testimony to this fact. On the wall are citations from the Boston Celtics Heroes Among Us Award, the Lawrence Bar Association, and the Paul Tsongas Public Service Award. She minimizes the significance.
"There is no importance to what I do," insists Shaheen, a mother of three, who lives in Windham, N.H., about 12 miles from Lawrence where she grew up. "Absolutely none! It's not about me, or anyone else. I love what I do; it's no effort for me. I'm one of many. All I do is try to pass along people's goodness, and follow the call of Jesus."
Shaheen has been following that call since childhood. Evidence that Jesus is real can be found each day in the heart of Bridget Shaheen and those like her. "I wanted to work with people who were poor since I was in the fourth grade," she says. "It was the reinforcement and influence of my parents."
Deeply religious and dedicated to public and community service, Shaheen's parents were "incredibly caring people," she says. Her late father, Louis James Scanlon, born in Lawrence, was a restaurant owner and a longtime Director of Public Safety for the City of Lawrence in addition to his service in the Legislature. His father, John Scanlan (later changed to Scanlon when a Lawrence City Hall clerk misspelled it) emigrated from Cloyne in County Cork where he had been a laborer; his wife Bridget O'Brien (Shaheen's namesake) came from County Monaghan.
Shaheen's mother, Helen Sullivan, an orphan, was born in South Boston. Not much is known of her family history. "She was a ward of the state," says Shaheen. "In those days, orphaned children were lined up in the back of the church and given to families who would take them."
"My mom," she adds, "was wholly committed; she was quiet, gentle, and compassionate, and always supported my dad. My father was a hard-working, fun loving, and helpful man." As head of public safety, he oversaw the Lawrence police and fire departments. "When the fire alarm rang in the middle of the night, my mother would get up and brew a pot of coffee for the firemen and those displaced by the fire. She sometimes woke us up to get mittens and hats for people who couldn't grab clothing as they fled their homes. My parents early on wanted us to know how fortunate we were and that we had a responsibility to help others."
"My dad also was always looking to help the underdog," she says. "He was the first in Lawrence to hire a physically challenged person in the public safety department, and when a local school burned and students had no way of getting to reassigned classrooms, my dad personally drove them to and from school in his car every day."
Shaheen was raised in a prayerful family. "My parents always encouraged sacrifice and responsibility. We were taught to be accountable for our actions and to keep our word. If you do it, or if you say it, then you must own it. My brother and I always took this to heart." Shaheen's brother Louis ultimately followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a police officer; he is now police chief on the island of Coronado off San Diego.
Shaheen was educated in the Lawrence Catholic School system, attending her parish elementary school, St. Laurence O'Toole, and St. Mary's High School where she was taught by the Notre Dame nuns. Her school years were mostly uneventful for interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities, with the exception of a short stint on her high school newspaper staff and the Glee Club. She says she was timid, although she played sports in the neighborhood. At 15, she started working part-time in a local hardware store. After high school, Shaheen attended Merrimack College in North Andover, majoring in the social sciences.
Upon graduation, she taught English to immigrants in Lawrence schools, married, and had a family. She and her husband Paul, who has served on the Lazarus House Board of Directors and is general manager at a family-owned food wholesaler and distributor in Amesbury, Shaheen Brothers, have three children: Karen, 36, senior project manager at a Boston marketing company; Michael, 34, warehouse manager at Shaheen Brothers; and Christen, 33, a teacher in a Lawrence elementary school. The family has had a multitude of blessings: Michael was born on Thanksgiving, and Christen was born the following Christmas; hence the spelling of her name. Shaheen and her husband have three grandchildren, and one on the way in January.
By the world's standards, the Shaheens had settled into a routine middle class life. By God's standards, there would be a higher calling.
In 1975, they became involved in what is known in Catholic circles as the Cursillo Movement—a worldwide renewal ministry, founded in Majorca, Spain, that deepens the faith and commitment to Christ. "The Cursillo Movement brings faith to life and creates a stronger desire to follow Jesus and minister to the needy," Shaheen says. "It's not about dogma or rules; it's about Christ's abiding love for us."
Shaheen heard of the movement through friends at her church, St. Joseph Melkite Church in Lawrence, and attended a Cursillo retreat at nearby St. Basil's Melkite Seminary and at Salvatorian Center in Methuen.
"I was fortunate to have been born into family of faith," she says. "We grow in faith at God's pace if we are fixed on His word. I believe that for a fuller life, more is required of us, and as long as we are true to what God has called us, His love is big enough to carry the rest. There is not a person whom Jesus did not accept where they were, and then invited them to become more. I am surrounded by reminders of how good God is."
The "becoming more" part in Shaheen's life led to her involvement at the Lazarus House Ministries. Some might say this is a more difficult life; Shaheen would argue that it is a far richer life, one that often leads to 60-hour weeks that require the high-wire juggling skills of an acrobat.
She says she often reflects on Christ's challenge in John 13: 12-15: "I, your Lord and teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another's feet. I have set an example for you so that you will do just what I have done for you."
So what's next as she approaches her mid sixties and rounds another corner on life?
"I've never looked at accomplishing anything," she says with characteristic humility. "I am fully satisfied in doing what the Lord wants me to do. And when my work is done at Lazarus House, I'm open to what's next. I have no agenda."
No agenda, that is, other than living her faith. As others ponder the mysteries of life, Shaheen is faithfully content in what she knows.
Greg O'Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications company based in Brewster. He is the author/editor of several books and a contributor to numerous regional and national publications.