Catonsville's Little Sisters of the Poor rich in giving

"Eight bucks," Patricia Coburn said, lugging two 13-pound frozen turkeys into the lobby of the Little Sisters of the Poor's St. Martin's Home for the elderly in Catonsville. "For both. Can you believe it?"

Coburn, a Catonsville resident, has been donating turkeys to the Little Sisters for the past several years, her personal Thanksgiving tradition.


"They do exceptional work," said Coburn, who is on the Catholic order's mailing list. "Any way to be philanthropic, to give back, it's the Christian thing, to share the blessings."

The Little Sisters actually accept frozen turkeys and frozen and canned hams throughout the year. But since donations tend to peak around Thanksgiving, , they decided four years ago to create Operation Turkey Drop, and a "start" date in early November.

This year's Turkey Drop looks to be on target to hit the goal of at least 150 turkeys and hams. A week before Thanksgiving, donations total about 100 although, "There's always a big rush right before the holiday," said Sister Lawrence Mary, volunteer coordinator at St. Martin's for the Little Sisters in Baltimore.

For the moment, the mostly turkeys and some hams sit in St. Martin's kitchen freezer. The residents will enjoy them for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and ongoing meals although even 150 of them don't last a whole year.

The Little Sisters' mission is to care for the elderly poor. Founded in France in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan, the international congregation of Roman Catholic women religious has 202 homes in 32 countries around the world. Of that number, 30 are in the United States. St. Martin's, dating to 1869, is the only home in Baltimore. The other closest homes are in Washington, D.C., and Newark, Del.

St. Martin's Home has 64 residents, eight of whom are men — a demographic breakdown that is typical of the Little Sisters' homes. The minimum entry age is 65 but nearly all of the residents are in their 80s and 90s. Four women are older than 100.

"We rely entirely on public charity," says Sister Lawrence Mary.

Half of St. Martin's annual budget comes from donations like the Turkey Drop as well as the vendors at the wholesale grocery market in Jessup, whom they visit weekly for fruits and vegetables — "They're very generous," Sister Lawrence Mary said — and various church collections, raffles and galas.

The other half of the budget comes from the residents, who must meet income eligibility requirements. The facility has independent and assisted-living units and residents pay what they can from pensions and Social Security. As residents become infirm, they can move into the facility's skilled nursing care, which is Medicare- and Medicaid-certified.

St. Martin's was renovated in 1969 and again recently. If a planned-for expansion takes place, the number of residents will grow to 80.

"Residents may be poor," Sister Lawrence Mary said, "but we don't want them living in a hovel."

St. Martin's is hardly that. Outside, corn stalks and pots of colorful mums decorate the entry to the one-story brick building. Inside, corridors are lined with wreaths of fall leaves and framed pictures, some religious and others nature scenes.

Sister Lawrence Mary leads a tour of the assisted-living wing. An automatic door opens to a cozy dining area, tables set for dinner with tablecloths, china and cutlery, and arranged before a large brick fireplace. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a garden courtyard; behind the dining area, the kitchen is open to view.

"We wanted to make the living quarters as warm and welcoming as we could," she said.


The corridors end in a common area with rocking chairs, an upright piano and, again, floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a stand of trees.

Mary Schuler, a former Towson resident, has been living at St. Martin's Home for almost 2 1/2 years. Schuler, 85, a widow, mother and grandmother, heard about it from a friend whose mother had lived there.

"I love it with all my heart," said Schuler, whose room accommodates a bed, dresser, armoire and television on a stand. The Little Sisters provide some furniture and the rest is her own. The room has a separate bathroom with shower.

"I like being around the sisters," Schuler said, giving Sister Lawrence Mary a hug.

In the independent-living wing, each room has a kitchen. Residents have the option of eating in the assisted-living wing if they choose.

Sister Lawrence Mary wants to make a point of thanking the people who help the Little Sisters in their mission. On a recent Saturday, for instance, Mary Jo Warthen, principal of St. Mark School, a pre-K to eighth-grade parochial school in Catonsville, held a Turkey Drop. Nearly 30 turkeys were collected in a single day.

"She gave out uniform passes [for donations]. Kids love that," Sister Lawrence Mary said of permission not to wear the school uniform for a day.

"When you depend on people to give you everything you need," said Sister Lawrence Mary, "we're very thankful."

For information or to donate to Operation Turkey Drop, go to http://www.littlesistersofthepoorbaltimore.org or call 410-744-9367.