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Sister Rose Harrington, 83; Pioneering Theology Teacher Founded Cafe for Homeless

Times Staff Writer

Sister Rose Harrington, who founded Bread & Roses Cafe for the homeless in Venice after her retirement from a ground-breaking career teaching theology, has died. She was 83.

Harrington died July 7 of cancer at the home of her order, St. Joseph of Carondelet, in Brentwood.

“She always put her best into anything that she did, and through that example, I think, she pulled the best out of others -- students, volunteers at Bread & Roses and those of us in the community,” said Sister Eileen Mitchell, a close friend.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., but raised in Southern California, Harrington joined the order on March 19, 1938. Harrington earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount St. Mary’s College, and in the 1950s became the first woman to earn a master’s degree in theology at the primarily male University of Notre Dame. Her program included a rare year of study in Rome at Regina Mundi.

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After serving for several years as mistress of postulants -- training new members of the St. Joseph order -- Harrington taught theology at Mount St. Mary’s College for 18 years. She became the first nun to chair the school’s theology department, previously run by priests.

A champion of social causes, Harrington marched with Cesar Chavez in his Delano, Calif., grape and lettuce boycott demonstrations in 1973. She was one of the first members of her order to be arrested for protesting with the fieldworkers, and spent two weeks in a Delano jail.

Harrington also worked with St. Joseph Center in Venice, a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization that offers the homeless showers, laundry facilities, job training and postal addresses.

In 1989, when she was 70 and newly retired from teaching, Harrington decided to go a step further with the center’s program of preparing sandwiches for the hungry. She envisioned a cafe with sit-down meals served at tables with flowers and pink linens, and classical music playing in the background.

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With other St. Joseph Center personnel, including its director, Rhonda Meister, she opened Bread & Roses Cafe in an alley off Rose Avenue and took over the tiny kitchen as chef. The 45-seat restaurant quickly attracted a reservations-only clientele, donations of food, and volunteer waiters, maitre d’s and kitchen aides.

The only rules were no drugs, drunkenness or violence.

“We wanted to uplift their spirits as well as nourish their bodies,” Harrington told The Times in 1991. “They are human beings. Just because they are homeless doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire for beauty and dignity.”

Actor Martin Sheen, perhaps the restaurant’s most famous volunteer, “is the best dishwasher this side of the Mississippi,” Sister Rose once said. “And he gives pep talks to some of these younger guys. One of them said he wanted to be an actor and Martin told him, ‘Before you start being an actor, you’d better get your own act together.’ ”

Harrington also persuaded UCLA to sanction a job-training program at the restaurant so that workers could earn a certificate preparing them for cooking or other food industry jobs.

She presided over the cafe’s kitchen until 1997.

An activist to the end, she participated in protests in Los Angeles this year against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

She is survived by her brother, Thomas Harrington of Huntington Beach, and a niece and nephew.

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A vigil service is scheduled for 4 p.m. and a memorial Mass at 7 p.m. today at Carondelet Center. Inurnment is planned at noon Monday in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.

Memorial donations can be made to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, 11999 Chalon Road, Los Angeles, CA 90049, or to St. Joseph Center, 204 Hampton Drive, Venice, CA 90291-8633.


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