When they joined a religious order decades ago, Maureen Griner and Margaret Ann Zinselmeyer took vows of poverty.
The Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Kentucky took care of their earthly needs. The two religious sisters took care of others in greater need — the “unutterably poor who are going through their long-continuing crucifixion,” as Dorothy Day once described them.
“The mystery of poverty,” Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, wrote in 1964, “is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”
For Griner and Zinselmeyer, it took some time for the mystery to unravel. The sisters didn’t realize how well-off they were until they moved to Memphis and met Jesus face to face.
Zinselmeyer saw Jesus in the faces of children infected or affected by HIV-AIDS at Hope House in Midtown. Griner saw Jesus in the faces of homeless children and their families at Dorothy Day House on Poplar near Cleveland.
“Dorothy Day said the ‘mystery of the poor’ is that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him,” Griner said. “That’s where we meet Jesus face to face.”
Griner, who grew up in Louisville, moved here first. In 1992, she left the Motherhouse in Kentucky to become director of music for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, then for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“Working with the homeless was not my life plan at all,” said Griner, who has a master’s degree in liturgical studies. “I was a musician. But if you go to church and hear those scriptures and those songs over and over and over, eventually you’re going to be led to the poor. That’s the gospel.”
Zinselmeyer, who grew up in St. Louis, moved here the same year to become a pastoral minister at St. Ann Church in Bartlett.
Three years later, she became administrative director for a new ministry called Hope House, a day care center for children either born with HIV or living with an HIV-infected family member.
“I went there to help them keep the books, to be a business manager, but I ended up helping them care for the children,” said Zinselmeyer, who has a master’s degree in early child development.
The Company of St. Ursula was founded in 16th-Century Italy by Angela Merici, a 60-year-old educator. She gathered two dozen young women “consecrated to Christ and living in the world rather than in a monastery.”
Ursuline Sisters became the Church’s first teaching order of women, founding communities and schools for girls wherever they went. St. Angela Merici became the patron saint of teachers and educators.
“You never stop learning,” Griner said.
In the early 2000s, Griner was leading a small liturgical education group for the diocese. One of the members asked about Dorothy Day.
Day, the 20th-Century American journalist, social activist and would-be, could-be saint, inspired a movement to open dozens of “hospitality houses” for the “unutterably poor who are going through their long-continuing crucifixion.”
On Holy Thursday 1964, Day sat with “the unutterably poor” around a supper table at St. Joseph’s house of hospitality in New York City. Three days later, on Easter, she read the final chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and had a revelation.
“The mystery of the poor is this,” she wrote. “That they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love.”
Day, daughter of a man from Tennessee, visited Memphis in October 1952 to support the work of another house of hospitality. It was called the Blessed Thomas House, a day care for black children whose parents were too poor to afford day care while they worked nearby cotton fields. It closed in 1956.
Day’s work and words inspired Griner and about 15 others from the class to open the Dorothy Day House in 2006. At the time, no shelter in the city took homeless families.
Since then, the three Dorothy Day houses (two more opened on Peabody in 2018 and 2020) have provided safe, temporary shelter and support for 125 families. Two of every three families leave with stable housing and employment.
“Not only do we meet Jesus in these families,” Griner said. “We meet Jesus in the thousands of people who support this ministry. The generosity of people in Memphis is just overwhelming.”
As is the challenge.
Griner knows that even three Dorothy Day houses aren’t nearly enough to meet the need. Finding a permanent home for Dorothy Day families has become more challenging than ever.
“This city is 43,000 low-income residences short of the need,” Griner said. “Even for people with jobs and savings, it’s very difficult to find an apartment they can afford, or a landlord who will accept them because of their past troubles, even if we are willing to co-sign the lease for them.”
So Griner will keep telling stories.
She’ll tell you about Aniece and her 7-year-old son, who were homeless for six years. The money she made as a part-time floral designer and short-order cook wasn’t enough to keep a roof over their heads.
About Arlene and her two teenage sons, who lived with a car roof over their heads for more than a month after they lost their apartment and all of their belongings in a fire.
About Sherry and her children, ages 3 and 7, who lived in a motel parking lot for several weeks after a friend wrecked her car and she lost her job because she couldn’t get to work. She took her kids to a nearby Walmart every morning to get them cleaned up for school.
About Delphany and her three children, who suddenly found themselves homeless after family difficulties forced them out of an apartment she had been working in vain to pay for. A relative was cashing her checks and using the money for drugs.
“It’s never just as simple as being homeless. There’s always more to it,” Griner said. “Homelessness itself causes such trauma. There are so many stories. So many in need.”
The same year the Dorothy Day House opened on Poplar, Zinselmeyer and Griner opened their own home to a four-year-old girl from Hope House.
When Adasia’s mother died from AIDS, Zinselmeyer became Adasia’s legal guardian, then her adoptive mother.
“Adasia needed to know she was chosen and belonged,” Zinselmeyer said.
“They both really cared for their daughter,” said their longtime friend and colleague, Rev. Val Handwerker, senior pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “Adasia knew she was loved by the entire community.”
Adasia was 13 months old when her mother died. She was the last of seven children, but the only one born HIV positive.
“I knew that kid was a fighter,” Zinselmeyer said. “She never should have lived. Her mother had full-blown AIDS when she was conceived.”
Adasia and her damaged heart struggled with multiple health issues. She spent a lot of time at St. Jude and Le Bonheur.
“First time I took her to St. Jude,” Zinselmeyer said, “I told the nurse her new name, Adasia Zinselmeyer. The nurse looked at me, then her. I said, ‘What, she doesn’t look German to you.?’ Every time I told Adasia that story, she’d say, ‘Mom, I’m everything from A to Z.'”
Adasia loved to bake, write, draw, make music, watch K-Pop, and play soccer. “When she was little, she was outside all the time playing,” Zinselmeyer said.
On Feb. 25, 2020, Adasia Johnetta Zinselmeyer, who received a heart transplant in 2014, suffered a fatal heart attack in their home. She was 17.
“She took our hearts with her,” Zinselmeyer said.
CHOOSING THE POOR
The two Sisters don’t get out as much anymore. They aren’t cloistered. They are retired.
Zinselmeyer left Hope House in 2014 to devote more time to Adasia. Griner retired from Dorothy Day House last December.
“We love retirement,” Zinselmeyer said.
“We hope to travel, but we haven’t yet,” Griner said.
They both left their religious order in 2016.
After years of working with “the unutterably poor” in Memphis, they realized their own vows of poverty had left them anything but impoverished.
“We knew how secure our life was in the order. We knew how much money the order had in the bank,” said Griner, who served for six years on the Ursuline leadership council.
“None of us had to worry about illness because we had an infirmary that would take care of us. We didn’t have to worry about a car. If we had a wreck today, we’d have a new car by tomorrow.
“We didn’t have to worry about our educations. It was all paid for. We didn’t have to worry about a job or housing or food or clothing. It was all paid for and taken care of.
“We were working with people who didn’t have food on the table, who didn’t have a house for their kids, who didn’t have a car to get to work, whose lives were falling apart. We finally said this isn’t working.”
The Sisters voluntarily gave up their incomes, health care coverage, retirement plans, and all other benefits that came with being a part of their order, including the title Sister.
“I know it’s crazy, but if you’re going to talk the talk you have to walk the walk,” Griner said. “We’re still the same people. We’re poorer, but it just feels better.”
“People here still call us Sister Maureen and Sister Margaret Ann,” Zinselmeyer said. “It’s who we are to people. It’s who we’ve always been.”
Hope in Memphis is a recurring series about people who are working every day in Memphis to defy and defeat crime and violence, poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, inequity, intolerance and ignorance.