Nun Uses Hairstyling as Outreach to Poor : Mission: Sister Bonnie Steinlage and her volunteers cut the hair of about 3,000 needy people a year. She says it helps improves their self-image.

From Associated Press

Sister Bonnie Steinlage spent 22 years as a nursing nun, and all the death and dying began to take its toll.

Her friends, she said, “urged me to do something different. I said, ‘When the time comes for me to change careers I will know, and it will be so clear I will have no doubt about it.”

Lightning struck nine years ago--on Ash Wednesday in 1986--when she heard a verse from Matthew 6:17 at Mass: “When thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face.”


To start her Lenten observance, she splurged on a $14 cut and perm. Sitting in that cut-rate salon, she knew she had to become a beautician.

She won a scholarship, became a licensed cosmetologist and, after a missionary stint in Brazil, set up shop at Mary Magdalene House, a shower facility for the poor and homeless in Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhood.

She will always remember her first customer.

“She had this tight, short skirt and she said, ‘I do drugs and I’m a prostitute.’ ” Steinlage recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, I’m not used to dealing with people like that.’ I thought I had Mary Magdalene herself.”

Steinlage still cuts hair there, and at three other hospitals and social service centers in nearby Hamilton. She has recruited a dozen volunteers, and using donated equipment and beauty products, they cut and style the hair of about 3,000 needy people a year.

“I believe my place is to go where the poorest of the poor are,” Steinlage said. “Many people are afraid to go, but I will.”

A member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor for 30 years, Steinlage, 50, has become an accomplished beggar of beauty shop supplies.


“I’m living out my name--Bonita Veronica Regina Steinlage,” she said. “Bonita means beautiful; Veronica means one who wipes the face of Jesus; Regina means queen--I try to make the women feel like a queen--and my last name means stone-layer or foundation. I’m giving people a foundation to build their lives on, a foundation of self-esteem.”


Steinlage believes the thing most sorely missed by the downtrodden is the feel of a human touch.

“I can hand you a sandwich, I can talk to you and never touch you,” she said. “My particular ministry of hair styling gives me permission to touch you.

“Many poor people lack being touched in gentleness and kindness, being looked at saying, ‘How can I help you?’ ”

She calls it “skin nourishment.”

“We all need it. Babies die if they don’t get touched. We never outgrow our need to be touched. We never outgrow our need to be patted on the back, to be affirmed,” she said.

Robert Cummings, 39, knows what it’s like to be knocked around by life. He was a highly paid oil rig worker until a motorcycle accident in 1979 left him disabled and unable to work.


“People get to thinking there’s not much good out there. I feel like a new person when I come here. They make you feel special,” he said.

“It’s more than just a haircut when you’re sitting in Sister Bonnie’s chair,” said Larry Pauly, director of public relations for the Franciscan Health System of Cincinnati.


He saw the effect it had on a woman who had been raped.

“She was very agitated when she walked in,” Pauly said. “Through the process, there was a healing that started at that point. Not only is there an image change on the outside, there’s something that happens inside.”

Steinlage knows it’s true.

“There’s much more that goes on in my chair than I will ever know,” she said. “When people are touched in anger or fright, what happens to them on the inside? But when they are touched with gentleness, there is love, creativity--an energy.”

When Steinlage finishes blow-drying Cummings’ hair, she exacts her fee. “We’ve increased our price,” she tells him, pulling out a paper angel. “You need to do an act of kindness. What would you like to do?” She writes Cummings’ pledge on the angel and gives it to him as a reminder.

Steinlage considers her ministry a harshly practical necessity for many. “You give somebody a sandwich, it lasts for four hours,” she said. “Give them a haircut, it lasts weeks. Doors of opportunity open to them for weeks.”