A police officer once asked Sister Pat McKittrick if she was living out of her car. The cop was only making a joke about all the stuff in her vehicle, but the question was a valid one. When a reporter takes a drive around Winooski with Sister Pat — as many in the Onion City know her — it’s clear she is not the stay-at-home type.
“My car is a little messy,” McKittrick apologizes as she settles into the driver’s seat of her Subaru SUV parked outside the O’Brien Community Center. With a short, mighty chortle, McKittrick then corrects herself: “No, it’s very messy!”
That outsize laugh will return several times during our walking-and-driving tour of Winooski, a city to which I have recently moved and where my tour guide has served, as a nurse and nun, for almost two decades. Like the 1.5-square-mile city, McKittrick is not big physically. And, compared with her white-haired fellow nuns, she is young (though just how young, she won’t say). But in 19 years, her work and personality have made sizable ripples in this ever-changing community.
McKittrick’s work has revolved around her role as a coordinator in the Community Outreach Department at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Her duties vary, she says, but often include connecting members of underserved communities with resources related to health insurance, wellness workshops and other services.
When McKittrick accepted the job in 1994, she moved from Montréal to Our Lady of Providence Convent, a 44-person residential-care facility in Winooski. There McKittrick began implementing programs to address issues such as malnutrition, an aging population, substance abuse and intolerance. Two of those programs, Health Ministries and Faith in Action, take an interfaith approach to delivering health care — they are open to members of any belief system.
A third program targets Winooski alone, relying on a collaborative model McKittrick developed while working in Montréal. There, McKittrick held regular meetings for a network of progress-minded locals, she explains, of whom she asked a simple set of questions: “Who’s not at the table? Who needs to be here for community building?”
McKittrick leveraged Fletcher Allen’s resources to implement the same approach in Winooski, assembling a group of movers and shakers that was initially called the Winooski Network. What started in 1997 as an informal committee, however, snowballed into a group of more than 180 individuals and 50-some organizations known collectively as the Winooski Coalition for a Safe and Peaceful Community.
It was 13 years ago that Bob DiMasi, then the newly appointed director of Winooski’s parks and recreation department, decided to check out this network people were talking about.
“Sister Pat was big on hearing what the needs of the community were,” DiMasi relates over the phone. “With her getting people [to the coalition meetings], people started getting hooked up with grants and programs.”
One issue, DiMasi remembers, was that children weren’t eating well during summer break. After McKittrick and other members of the coalition brainstormed solutions, the city managed to secure funding for a camp from the national Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. Now run through the city’s community services department, the Summer Youth Enrichment Program provides children with breakfast and lunch, as well as intellectually engaging activities.
Sister Pat wasn’t just instrumental within the Winooski Coalition, DiMasi says. When his son once fell seriously ill, she and several other “nun cronies,” as he calls them, arrived at the DiMasis’ home with pizza and sodas for the family.
“She would just kind of do that stuff out of the blue, and that’s the way she is,” DiMasi says, noting the seven-hour drives McKittrick often makes to see her family members in New Jersey. “She’s like the Energizer Bunny. She just keeps going.”
In a way, her family is the reason McKittrick just keeps going. Sitting in the O’Brien Community Center several days after our Tour de Winooski — drinking coffee that Starbucks donates every Friday morning — McKittrick compares her family to “the League of Nations.” The oldest of 12 children, she grew up in New Jersey during the 1960s, when race riots were erupting in and around New York City. At a time when just talking to a person of color was considered radical, McKittrick describes her family as unusually open-minded. Her dad’s best friend was a black man, while several of her younger siblings married individuals from Puerto Rico, France, Bosnia and Poland. Because of that diversity, McKittrick says, she learned from an early age to appreciate difference.
While studying to be a nurse in New Jersey, McKittrick volunteered in a hospital with several nuns from the Sisters of Providence community. She realized, she recalls, that joining the sisterhood would allow her to keep serving alongside likeminded people.
The decision “focused on my beliefs and the gospel message about caring for each other, which I think is a universal value,” McKittrick says. “I was always interested in social justice, to work for those who were most vulnerable, to reach out and go beyond the comfort zone.”
Anticipating the next question, McKittrick grins and quips, “I wanted to work with people and serve people. I’d have been divorced when I was very young!”
After 17 years of community outreach work in Montréal, where the Sisters of Providence are based, she moved to Vermont with both French and Spanish language skills under her belt. In a small city where 28 languages are now spoken, McKittrick and other members of the Winooski Coalition began looking for a community center where every local would feel welcome.
Beginning around 2002, the coalition pressed the Winooski City Council to approve funding for an employee to spearhead the project. J. Ladd, former director of the city’s community development department, ended up filling the role. He now credits McKittrick with recognizing the need for a community center in the first place.
“That came from years of being in the community and foreseeing what the whole population of Winooski would need, whether they were fifth-generation Winooski residents or first-generation Americans,” Ladd says. “She brought the idea to the city council very persuasively.”
City councilors weren’t the only ones persuaded by McKittrick and the coalition; Ladd went to Montréal with the nun to seek donations from various religious organizations. While there, Ladd says, McKittrick presented their case so “neatly and succinctly” that they returned with pledges of more than $100,000.
Eventually, the bulk of funding for the community center came from Richard Tarrant, the philanthropist and former politician who named it after longtime Winooski residents Robert and Shirley O’Brien. The O’Brien Center on Malletts Bay Avenue opened in 2008. Today, its walls boast artwork by the area’s refugees, while its rooms host nonprofit organizations including Winooski Family Health, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and the Greater Burlington YMCA. The Winooski Memorial Library recently moved into the building, as well.
In 2011, the Y awarded McKittrick its first annual Social Responsibility Award.
Walking through the community center, the sister asks just about everyone how she or he is doing. Drug dealers used to mingle behind this building, she says. But after the demolition of a wall separating the basketball court behind the center from Hickock Street, and the addition of a community garden and motion-sensitive lights, the area remains clean.
City Manager Katherine “Deac” Decarreau says McKittrick’s contributions to Winooski have been greater than the sum of the programs she helped create.
“She’s a constant presence. She’s got her finger on the pulse of the needy and most disenfranchised,” Decarreau says over the phone. She cites human trafficking in Vermont as one issue McKittrick began raising more than a year before anyone else did.
To encourage refugee residents to contribute to the community, McKittrick has organized the Winooski Culture Hop, a celebration where everyone displays his or her country’s traditional clothing.
At one hop, Decarreau recalls, “[McKittrick] and all the other nuns are dressed in colorful African garb. I went to Catholic school, so I remember the old habit. To see them in those clothes was just so welcoming, and a statement of such utter equality.”
McKittrick’s spritely personality almost makes a life of service look easy. It certainly seems to help her put things in perspective. By interacting with Winooski’s refugee populations, the nun says, she has learned how to truly enjoy the present moment.
“A lot of them have suffered,” McKittrick says. “When they’ve been through all these hurdles and can be joyful about it, our own problems can seem small in comparison.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Winooski's Sister Act."