Sister Vera Butler

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Vera Butler, born in County Kerry. A nun who helps poor people, is Hibernian of the Year.

Sister Vera Butler was born in Portmagee, County Kerry, Ireland.

Vera Butler, a Roman Catholic nun who has provided relief to the needy of New Orleans, especially homeless and poor people whose lives were turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina, has been named Hibernian of the Year (2014) by a host of local and regional Irish cultural organizations. 

Sister Vera received the award Monday, St. Patrick's Day 2014, from several chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians at the 138th annual St. Patrick's Day Banquet. 

Vera Butler went to the Presentation Sisters in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland for high school. Soon after she entered the congregation and as a novice, she became a grade school teacher and taught in Ireland before becoming one of the founding sisters of the mission in Louisville, Colorado.  

The Presentation Sisters was started on Christmas Eve 1775, when the four sisters said: ‘How are we going to celebrate Christmas?’ said Presentation Sister Vera Butler of the community of religious women founded in Cork by Nano Nagle. “They thought ‘Let’s invite 50 of the poorest people to dinner’ and it’s been a tradition ever since that we feed the hungry and poor on Christmas Day.”

After Colorado, Sister Vera ministered in Metairie, Louisiana as a school teacher; in Warner Robins as Principal; as Development Director for the US Province and later as Outreach Coordinator for St. Joseph's Church in New Orleans. 

Sister Vera has been ministering among those made poor at St. Joseph Church/Lantern Light for fourteen years.  

Sister Butler said that it was a wonderful experience and a time of transformation.  She said that she learned from our guests that God is the one who is in control and how important it is to put all our trust in God.

After Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, Sister Vera went door to door in devastated neighbourhoods to get an idea of people's needs and set up programs to meet them. For this work, she received Catholic Extension's Lumen Christi Award in 2006.

After working 15 years at St. Joseph Church she then served as director of its Lantern Light Ministry. Sr. Vera has directed the Presentation Sisters’ Mid-City based “Lantern Centre Ministries” for the poor and homeless since 2005, initially out of a tiny trailer parked on the grounds of the landmark Tulane Avenue church. 

In 2007, Butler helped create the Rebuild Centre behind the church, where four Presentation Sisters now operate a food pantry and free lunch program, mail service, emergency medical care, legal help and classes in reading and writing as well as providing housing assistance, birth certificate and ID assistance and medical care to people in need. For five days a week, Sister Vera and the other members of her order feed as many as 250 people each day. 

Sister Butler organizes the staff and sets up a serving line, as she does Monday through Friday. Once lunch was ready, she announces grace over a megaphone, adding a special prayer for God’s continued blessing. The crowd move in orderly fashion, and lunch is quickly over. 

Wearing a quilted vest and khaki pants, Sister Vera Butler scurries from one end of the Rebuild Centre to the other.  Sister Vera says "I’m too blessed to be depressed,” smiling, explaining her unshakable optimism amid the poor and homeless in the Tulane-Gravier neighbourhood.

Founded in Ireland in 1775 by Nano Nagel, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary have the mission of serving the poor, Butler said. 

The sisters based at St. Joseph Church — Butler, Enid Storey, Anna Raimon and Maureen Nolan — prepared food, clean up and socialize with guests in what are called “corporal works of mercy.” 

Ten young pre-novitiates recently visited New Orleans, part of a process of discernment that helps them decide whether to choose the religious life. They said “We really believe it is a special calling,” said Sister Julie Hurtado, who is based in San Antonio. 

Hurtado, a registered nurse, administered neck and shoulder massages, touching guests in a “therapeutic way,” she said. Massage is important to those who are homeless because they often sleep on the ground. Many people won’t even look at them, she said. There is value “just to be present and provide a listening ear.” 

A typical homeless person Tyrone Craig, who is disabled, sat on a bench under the wooden shelter while the sisters prepared the meal. In 2010, when his mother died, he found compassion at the Rebuild Centre, he said. 

I like the sisters. They give me great comfort — to know that somebody cares,” said Craig who comes to the centre daily. 

In a typical day starting at about 12:50 p.m., the daily lunchtime, the crowd starts forming. “I wonder how they do it sometimes,” Craig marvelled.

Another guest Wendell Sneed was already hungry and waiting in line. Before Hurricane Katrina he worked at Xavier University, but now sleeps “wherever night catches” him. Despite being homeless, Sneed can shower at the Rebuild Centre, “trying to keep up appearances,” he said. 

It gives you self-esteem. You’ve taken a shower, eaten and now go out and do something,” said Sneed, who said he’s always looking for work. 

If it wasn’t for them, I think a lot of us would lose our wits,” he said. 

Judah Leggett, 30, helped serve the meal. She teaches college history in San Antonio, but plans to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

The sisters believe their lives are enriched through the work they do with the hundreds of poor and homeless people who come to the centre every week.

They transform our lives and, hopefully, we transform theirs,” Sister Butler said.

Her first task was to assist Sister Agnes Eucharia in begging from door to door, which was a strange and   ml embarrassing experience, but they collected a good deal of money and they used this to buy brand new clothes for poor children.

Sister Eucharia taught her a valuable lesson. “She taught me real respect for the poor — you didn`t give shabby clothes to people who felt shabby about themselves or worn out clothes to those who were worn down.”

Her time spent as an assistant to a pastoral worker in the Hammersmith and Paddington area of London, helping poor Irish families, was a real eve-opener, and then, after her novitiate, she was sent to work in a school, laundry and youth club at Stanhope Street Convent in Dublin, in the early 1960`s.