It was a classic Sister Katherine moment. She was standing on a forlorn stretch of West Pratt Street when three people shuffling past stopped to inquire about the nearly finished building behind her. Eagerly, almost thankfully, she engaged them.

Soon, she said, it will be a place where drug addicts can talk about their demons or just duck out of the chaotic streets for a while. Soon it will be evident why the glass-fronted building is called an Island of Hope.

"It'll be a beautiful spot for beautiful people," said Katherine Nueslein, a gray-haired veteran of the Sisters of Mercy religious order. "And you all are the beautiful people."

For 31 years, Nueslein has teased out beauty from the blight of Southwest Baltimore. She has made it her life's work to help others improve their lives, even as the neighborhood has crumbled under the weight of drugs, crime and dysfunction.

Where some might be tempted to sugarcoat the problems or walk away in defeat, Nueslein, 76, shows no inclination to do either. She remains clear-eyed about the size of the broader hurdles but convinced things can get better on a personal level - this man in recovery, that woman back in school.

"I've been here since '78, and to me it's the worst it's been," the Georgia native said of her adopted home. In a gentle drawl, she ticked off the reasons: "Vacancies, education, jobs, the crime, the drugs, the gangs." The recession? It has only deepened the ruts.

And yet: "In the middle of all this muck," she said, cruising past boarded-up houses in her old Ford Taurus wagon, "we're beautiful."

The Rev. Joe McDonough met her more than a decade ago when they created the Hezekiah spiritual center, which is building the Island of Hope as a place for people to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings or enjoy moments of solitude. He is impressed by Nueslein's lack of discouragement and by her vast well of enthusiasm - a cheerful endurance he attributes to small, real successes over years.

"That's what keeps her going," said McDonough, "those one-on-one relationships with people that last years and years and years."

Whenever possible, Nueslein connects with her neighbors across her unofficial territory: a rectangle that goes from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard west to Monroe and from Lexington Street south to Pratt, where Pigtown begins. She makes a point of going inside homes so people will feel proud, and recent hip replacement surgery has barely slowed her down.

Recently she visited Robin Lipscomb, 52, at Lipscomb's government-owned house on a block of Lexington with rampant drug-dealing. After limping up a few steps, Nueslein settled in, complimenting a handsome if tarnished mirror hanging over the couch.

Lipscomb, a heroin addict who has been clean for a couple of years, lives with her two daughters, ages 18 and 21, and their three young children. She says she hopes to find a job but for now busies herself with cleaning jobs and volunteering.

Lipscomb met Nueslein at a Hezekiah event two year ago and went on a retreat to rural West Virginia. There she saw her first truly starry sky and sat around her first campfire, profound experiences that started a love of the outdoors.

Not long ago, Lipscomb thought about her mentor when a man walked up Lexington asking for help to feed his children. "I was like, what would Sister Katherine do?" (She gave him food but no money.)

Lipscomb and her friends call Nueslein "the modern-day a-rabber." Instead of a horse and wagon, she has her Ford. "When she pulls up, you never know what she has in there," Lipscomb said with a laugh. "She might have food, she might have flowers, she might have clothes."

Drugs were already a problem in Southwest Baltimore when Nueslein arrived from Savannah, Ga., to carry on the work of the Sisters of Mercy. As white flight to the suburbs gained speed, the one-time Irish district morphed into a mixed-race area faced with dilapidation and fading job prospects.

Early on, she and a colleague hit the streets to get acquainted. They began a teen group and a summer camp. She taught preschool and Sunday school. In the early 1980s, she helped start St. Peter's Adult Learning Center to provide job training for developmentally disabled adults and a small housing nonprofit called Southwest Visions.

The problems remain stubbornly entrenched, as Nueslein is reminded every time she sees another former student who's gotten tangled up in drugs. According to a report last year from the Baltimore Health Department, the area around Hollins Market north to Franklin Street had the lowest life expectancy in the city: 62 1/2 years. Of 55 areas in Baltimore, it had the fifth-highest murder rate, third-highest HIV rate and second-highest tally of drug-related deaths.

"Third World" is how Nueslein puts it, and she should know from her annual charity missions to impoverished El Salvador. It's a world where parents have a standing agreement to shield each other's children when, not if, gunfire erupts.

Against this grim backdrop are some stirrings of change. The Hollins Market area has added shops and restaurants. The University of Maryland BioPark has begun to rise along West Baltimore Street. And a number of formerly vacant houses have been fixed up, said Jane Buccheri, president of the Hollins Roundhouse community association.

These days Nueslein squeezes physical therapy into a jammed schedule. Tuesdays, she holds a prayer hour and lunch; Thursdays, it's the weekly prayer dinner. Nueslein says she has no intention of moving, just as she's given no thought to retiring. As soon as her left hip heals, she'd like to have the right one replaced. "If I get that other hip," she said, "I'll be good as new."

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