A Friend of the First Order : Sister Jean Takes Her Commitment to Boston's Teen-Agers Seriously

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Marie Gribaudo cuts through Boston City Hall on her way to a quick huddle with her boss, Mayor Tom Menino. Her red blazer flips open in the breeze. Her pink rouge seems redundant, given her aerobic pace. Shots of light spin off her gold circle pin as she speeds down a flight of stairs in the mayor's direction.

Conversation gets interesting when she mentions her recent evening with President Clinton in Washington, D.C., where they discussed programs to keep young people out of trouble. She should know. She oversees 18 teen basketball leagues in Boston's poorer sections.

At 30, Sister Jean has become a public figure, a civic dynamo, an advocate for underprivileged youth who is always getting attention for what she does. She's so well-connected that she could run for Congress some day, if not for her home address. She lives in Holy Name Convent.

In April, Sister Jean--"Sis-tah" as they call her around City Hall--took her final vows for full commitment to the Order of St. Joseph, Catholic nuns dedicated to living in a religious community but working in the world.

She shares a house with nine others in rough West Roxbury, near Boston. While her housemates teach school or work in spiritual development programs, Sister Jean serves as the mayor's adviser on the youth of Boston. Menino created the position just for her when he took office in 1993.

It's not unusual for women or men in religious life to work with teens in after-school sports or social outreach projects. But for a nun to hold a city government job, helping young people in a secular setting, is very rare. There aren't any who do so in Los Angeles, the largest Catholic diocese in the country.

No one seems more aware of her unusual position than Sister Jean herself.

"I sat in the car and cried when the mayor asked me to do this," she recalls. "I knew it would challenge me more than anything else could."

The test is whether she can remain faithful to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Her government salary poses no threat. She earns $1 per year at what is technically a volunteer position. But the work itself, and the circles she moves in, could turn her head. "It is glamorous," she says. "I could think, 'Wow, bag everything and just do this.' "

Before she accepted the mayor's offer, she had to get permission. "First I asked my own superiors. Then, I talked to the cardinal," she says of Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston. He worried that she could get caught up in policy matters that conflict with religious teachings. For example, the Catholic Church is against birth control, but the city is for it. Her solution is to keep silent.

"Condom distribution, I would not want to get embroiled in that," she says.

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Political savvy didn't come to Sister Jean overnight. She entered the novitiate in 1989, after working for Network, a Washington lobbying group founded by Catholic nuns concerned with social justice.

As a novice, her interest in young people led her to set up basketball leagues in three parishes around Boston--St. Thomas Aquinas, Our Lady of Lourdes and Blessed Sacrament. She still oversees them, including a night league that meets Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. "Kids know if they need to talk to me, I'll always be there that night," she says.

She met the mayor in 1992, when he was a city councilman. Soon after, he began referring to her as "the flying nun."

"She dogged us," Menino recalls. "Government wouldn't let her open up a gym for after-school basketball games in one of the public schools." More precisely, Sister Jean explains, the custodial union wanted to charge her $45 an hour to use it.

After steady badgering, the City Council started to see things her way. Now she uses the gym weekdays without charge. "She drives the Establishment crazy," the mayor says. "But I don't know anybody more dedicated to the young people."

One of the first things she did as mayor's adviser was help him set up the Boston Youth Council. High school juniors and seniors from 18 neighborhoods apply for a seat. Every six weeks they meet with the mayor to discuss ways to create jobs for young people, give them access to training programs and provide safe places where they can socialize.

Council members also run meetings in their own neighborhoods, inviting young people from the local branches of community organizations and social service agencies. The council members take concerns and suggestions from them to the mayor.

"We want to help the kids feel they own more of the city," Sister Jean says. "Most people don't want to talk to teen-agers. They're afraid of them. But the mayor cares and wants to help."

Last summer the teens went door to door in their neighborhoods, looking for information about services available to young people, from day care for parenting moms to tutor programs. They set up Boston Youth Line, a toll-free number that lists the results.

"We found all sorts of things just canvassing buildings," Sister Jean says. "The Boston Aquarium has rooms for meetings they let people use free of charge. We didn't know that till we asked."

Her latest project is to encourage private and public business owners to hire a percentage of their employees from among teens. "Kids get labeled," Sister Jean says. "Adults look at them and think, 'They're never going to make it.' But inside that big bunch of baggy clothes is a kid with redeemable qualities."

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On a typical day, Sister Jean works with up to 60 young people. She refers to most of them as "my kids." Some of them are doing better than others. "One 14-year-old is pregnant, getting beaten up by her boyfriend. It's sad to see them make wrong choices."

Back at the convent, her erratic hours and near-frantic pace have raised some eyebrows. "She could challenge any one of us because of her passion for her mission and the young people," says one of her superiors, Sister Mary Ann Enright. Still, Sister Mary Ann admits, "I've heard some sisters tell Sister Jean, 'It's a good thing you don't live with me. I wouldn't want the phone ringing at midnight because a young person is in crisis.' "

Sister Jean started working with teen-agers when she was still one herself. One of four children, she grew up in Roslindale, west of Boston. By the time she was in college, she was tutoring high school students and helping out in her parish youth program. (Her mother still works at the parish school cafeteria; her father is a retired machinist.)

Sister Jean's work schedule doesn't easily fit around convent life. But for the most part, superiors have been supportive. "If she misses evening prayer, she misses it," says Sister Mary Ann. "Her work is countercultural. She brings a spiritual dimension to a secular ministry. That's important."

Sister Mary Ann sees Sister Jean as part of a new wave of religious women determined to be more visible in the secular world. "Think of it," she says. "A Nobel Prize winner for her work in social justice and a Sister of St. Joseph." She envisions nuns as CEOs and leaders in media. She has already written to Oprah Winfrey, suggesting a show on the subject.

Sister Jean has simpler plans. "I need to stay very grounded in my relation with God," she says.

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