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After the crash: Homeless men and women help nun clean up Over-the-Rhine church garden

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Police arrest the driver who crashed through the granite and wrought iron gate at the Main Street entrance of Old St. Mary’s courtyard garden on Oct. 24. Ticked between other buildings, like many such gardens in OTR, the garden dedicated to Mary leads to a second small garden behind the historic church. COURTESY PHOTO
Police arrest the driver who crashed through the granite and wrought iron gate at the Main Street entrance of Old St. Mary’s courtyard garden on Oct. 24. Ticked between other buildings, like many such gardens in OTR, the garden dedicated to Mary leads to a second small garden behind the historic church. COURTESY PHOTO

Sister Marie-Cecile was in the parking lot and Father Jon-Paul Bevak was getting ready for catechism class in the hall next to Old St. Mary’s church when they heard the brakes squeal.

It’s Over-the-Rhine,” said Father Bevak. “It’s not unusual.”

But this time it was anything but usual, even for Over-the-Rhine. At 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, a driver chased by police from Southgate, Kentucky, over the river to Cincinnati crashed his car into the pillars of a granite and wrought-iron gate on Main Street, the back entrance to the mid-block courtyard garden at Old St.Mary’s Church. Just doors away from the popular OTR hangout Goodfellas Pizza, the loud crash quickly drew a crowd from nearby businesses. The driver struck and injured a neighborhood woman walking her dog before smashing into the metal and stone.

By the time Sister Marie-Cecile got there, she said, the man’s passenger was standing in the street in a daze. Five months pregnant, she was afraid she would lose her baby. The injured neighborhood woman’s dog was missing and feared to be under the wreckage. Sister Marie-Cecilie stayed with them both until the ambulances came. Father Bevak helped police identify the property. By the time the crowd dispersed and police re-opened Main and 12th Streets at about 9:30, it was too dark to assess the damage.

Wednesday morning the priests of the Oratory of St. Neri, who live at Old St. Mary’s square, left for their parishes or duties, so Sister Marie-Cecile started tackling the damage on her own. It was nothing out of the ordinary for the woman discerning the possibility of a religious community at the region’s oldest church. Dressed in a habit and veil reminiscent of St. Therese of Lisieux’s, she has been working with a crew of volunteers to clear out two rubble-filled row houses at Clay and 12th Streets with their bare hands. Her Facebook followers are familiar with her photos of the progress, and of how the roof looked on the day she climbed up to see what shape it was in.

The granite stones, paving bricks from the original Fountain Square, and the decorative iron fencework were sturdy enough so that they split apart like building blocks, but the mess was everywhere. “I went out mostly to look at it, and to clear the bricks off the sidewalk so that people could pass,” she said. “And then one by one, the homeless people started to help.”

She knows them all by sight, if not all by name, she said. She often passes them standing in front of the nearby Mary Magdalene House waiting to take showers, where they’ll exchange greetings.

Some of them were on their way to the shower house when they saw her and the wreckage.

“Homeless people often ask if you want help,” she said. “If I’m carrying something heavy from the hardware store, they’re the first people after the police to ask if I need help. They’re often very kind people going through hard times, and they go out of their way for you.”

About 10 men and women helped over the course of the morning, she said. Some carried and piled the thick stones that were scattered over the walkway and garden. Some helped drag away the bits of the wrecked car still left on the ground. Some, whom she thought were hoping to be hired by construction crews across the street (“they want work, but it’s hard for them to get hired because they don’t have a home address”), chipped mortar from the usable bricks so they could be reused easily. Some swept the sidewalk.

“They went the extra mile,” Sister Marie-Cecile said. “It was real community spirit, people looking out for each other.”

Toward the end of the impromptu project, a man passing the site stopped to ask Sister what was going on. When she told him, he bought the remaining workers lunch — yet another sign of Over-the-Rhine spirit.

Both Father Bevak and Sister Marie-Cecile say the crash was near miraculous. People often gather by the gate to talk, Father Bevak said, and had the car crashed a few yards south at Goodfellas or across the street at one of the restaurants, many people could have been harmed. The unborn baby was not harmed, the dog was found, and though the woman struck by the car suffered a concussion, she was otherwise unscathed.

“Please pray for them,” Sister Marie-Cecile said, but added that prayers of thanksgiving are also in order. “It could have been so much worse,” she said. “It could have hit many people, but it just hit a wall. Walls can be fixed.”

Thanks to St. Marie-Cecile for the photos.

Homeless men and women passing the church on their way to the Mary Magdalene House, which offers free showers and other services, stopped to help Sister Marie-Cecilie clean up the heavy granite bricks strewn over the sidewalk and garden.  COURTESY PHOTO
Homeless men and women passing the church on their way to the Mary Magdalene House, which offers free showers and other services, stopped to help Sister Marie-Cecilie clean up the heavy granite bricks strewn over the sidewalk and garden. COURTESY PHOTO
Several of the people who stopped to help posed for this group photo. About 10 people, all of them homeless, helped with the cleanup over the course of the morning, said Sister Marie-Cecile. COURTESY PHOTO
Several of the people who stopped to help posed for this group photo. About 10 people, all of them homeless, helped with the cleanup over the course of the morning, said Sister Marie-Cecile. COURTESY PHOTO
Cleaned up: The bricks (mortar removed) stacked neatly in the courtyard garden, under the watchful eyes of Mary and St. Joseph. COURTESY PHOTO
Cleaned up: The bricks (mortar removed) stacked neatly in the courtyard garden, under the watchful eyes of Mary and St. Joseph. COURTESY PHOTO
A man walking by stopped to ask what had happened, and bought lunch for the five people remaining in the volunteer cleanup grew. Here they pose at Lucy Blue Pizza down the street. COURTESY PHOTO
A man walking by stopped to ask what had happened, and bought lunch for the five people remaining in the volunteer cleanup grew. Here they pose at Lucy Blue Pizza down the street. COURTESY PHOTO
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