Sister Henrietta was in a hurry. She had a lot to talk about, and she whipped through it like she was being clocked. Between verbal laps, the 6-year-old Catholic nun jabbed he listeners' arms to stress points. Her hands are soft but powerful-twising, shaping, stabbing-and her handshake is disarmingly firm.
"We're taking care of the needy, not the greedy, so help me God," said Sister Henrietta, who for 14 years has been a one-woman urban renewal project in the Hough slum area of Cleveland-a community innovator who speaks like Jesse Jackson ("People have to know uses and abuses of budgets"), and works like a domestic Mother Theresa. Her face is softly wrinkled, framed by a conservative habit-full black veil and dark gray robes.
She is a registered nurse, a fellow of the American College of Hospital Administrators, who built the $1.4 million Timken Mercy Hospital in Canton, Ohio, and was running three Canton hospitals at once before she tackled Hough.
Yesterday, she was awarded the National Urban Coalition's annual Distinguished Community Service Award at a luncheon at the Washington Hilton.
Outside the banquet room, she zipped through her credentials, disdained to discuss her past life, and plunged into talk of her program.
Since 1965, she has worked among the 1,500 mostly poor and black families of Hough teaching them how to repair their homes and budget their money.
"You've got to teach people to cut the cloth to fit the budget," she said. "You don't get food stamps for toilet paper."
She brought in utility specialists, telephone men, and upholsterers to teach people how to take care of and rehabilitate their homes.
To bolster the effort, she recruited volunteers-black, white and poor from the ghetto; professionals from the city; and Junior Leaguers from the sururbs.
Her Famicos Foundation (the word means "family") has collected nearly $1 million in private and foundation donations. ("None from the government-they're paper constipated, you know?") With that money, she has bought 80 homes for community residents who make payments and maintain them under the foundation's supervision.
"Out of 80 homes," she said, poking her listener, "only three people were evicted."
She decided to go to Hough because she felt her hospital work did not directly serve the poor. "Coming from microscopic cleanliness," she said, "and seeing the rats and roaches-God, I thought I'd die. In the first four days we found a woman dead and the rats were already beginning to eat at her."
Since, she said, "I've seen it, I've lived it, I've heard it, I've smelled it."
She developed an acute case of what she calls "conscience-itis," and her style is correspondingly direct:
"A man came to see me in a fur coat one day and said he needed money to buy shoes for his kids, and I said, 'Where did you get the coat?' He said, 'I bought it.' I said, 'Sell the coat and buy the shoes.' It was tough for me to do that, but I had to, right?"
She lives in an apartment in Hough with another nun. They have a chapel "where we get our ammunition every morning." She has a Holy Spirit medal on her watch, and wears the full habit on the streets because she figures it keeps her safer and is a morale-booster for neighborhood residents.
She shuns comparison with Mother Theresa, the nun renowed for her work in India.
"Oh, no," Sister Henrietta said. "I sat with her for 20 minutes last year when she was in Cleveland to get a doctorate from John Carroll University. Oh, she's marvelous. She has arthritis.
"And she had on rags! I look at my clothes and say, 'Are they wrinkled?' She told me that when young girls come to her, she tells them 'Go to the poor.' We've got to go to the poor."
Sister Henrietta looked at her watch. "Hey, I've gotta run-got a plane to catch." She jumped up and was off-until she caught sight of another award winner. "Hey, listen," she paused to call out, "If you ever come to Cleveland, bring a million dollars." CAPTION: Picture, Sister Henrietta of Cleveland, by Douglas Chevalier-The Washington Post