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In memory of Sister Alice Marie

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Sister Alice Marie Quinn, founder of St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, died June 23. She was 82. (photo/R.W. Dellinger)

Sister Alice Maire Quinn, a Daughter of Charity, founded St. Vincent Meal on Wheels in 1977 and continued bringing love to those in need into her 80s. She died June 213 at 82. 

The following is feature we published in the Tidings on March 6, 2015 about Sister Alice Marie. We’re republishing it on our website today in memory of her beautiful example. She continues to inspire us. 

A viewing will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 27, followed by a rosary at 7 p.m. and Mass of the Resurrection at 7:30 p.m. at St. Vincent Church, 621 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. At 10 a.m., a Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Vincent Church, followed by interment at Resurrection Cemetery, 966 Potrero Grande Drive, Montebello. 

‘I’m not stopping’: Sister Alice Marie Quinn founded St. Vincent Meals on Wheels in 1977. And at 80, she still likes being its hands-on boss.

On a Thursday morning last month, a little before 9 o’clock, Sister Alice Marie Quinn came into the kitchen of St. Vincent Meals on Wheels. She was using a three-wheel walker with hand-grip breaks and a dark red metal frame. The 80-year-old Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul had a blue apron wrapped around her white habit and a no-nonsense expression. 

“Time to pray!” she called out, loud enough to carry over the din of pots and pans. Cooks, behind the food tray production line on one side of the room, women workers on the other, stopped what they were doing. “Good morning, good morning,” she said. “Time to pray.” 

After everyone made the sign of the cross, she led the group in reading a typed prayer on small pieces of paper: “Lord, out of your desire to share your goodness, you have given me another breath and created another day. May I pause occasionally today and take a deep breath, reminded of the gift of life. May I thank you always for all your gifts. Amen.”

Glancing around now at more gathering staff and volunteer van drivers and “runners,” who take the meals in special plastic trays to homebound clients, the nun said in a softer voice, “Have a great day. I hear it’s going to get really hot. So God bless you and drink your water and tell clients to drink water, too.”

Angels and Bob’s Big Boy

Back in her small office off the kitchen, Sister Alice Marie sat down behind a wood desk covered with figurines and knick-knacks. At first, you notice all the little angel statues in different poses. But there’s also a jeweled egg, a mini-menorah, a bamboo plant, tiny U.S. flags and even a 1950s-era Bob’s Big Boy artifact — an eclectic mix to say the least.

The walls were covered, too, with framed angel and cherub paintings, a forest of crosses and crucifixes, and unframed snapshots, many of people posed with her.  The room, in short, looked more like a gift shop than the office of the program director of a nonprofit corporation that prepares and delivers hot and cold meals to about 3,500 people six days a week.

The Daughter of Charity explained.

“When I was a kid at Catholic school in Chicago, they taught us about guardian angels,” she said. “And I always believed in them and that they took care of me, ‘cause I got out of so many scrapes. So I’ve always had a great devotion to them. And when they became popular, everybody started bringing me angels. So I put them up. I have this room and another one next door that’s full of angels. And a lot of clients over the years have given me crucifixes when I visited them.”

After watching me scan the room and shake my head, she said, “I can’t stand an empty wall. So I just started hanging everything up so everybody could enjoy it, and it brings their mind to God sometimes.” 

Daughters of Charity

Growing up with two brothers and two sisters, she was a tomboy, favoring toy trucks to dolls. She liked to ride her brother’s bike, too. 

Her own mind turned to God when she met the Daughters of Charity a few years after her family moved to Texas. They were the sisters who wore the winged headgear made famous by Sally Field in the TV hit “The Flying Nun.”  

After high school, she studied nursing and then worked with the sisters at a hospital. Soon she was tagging along to visit the poor. “I didn’t find out until later that was their way of getting vocations,” said Sister Alice Marie with a knowing look. “I thought they just needed the help taking food to the poor.”

On her 19th birthday, she entered their community and was sent to New Orleans to restart nursing training because her grades had been so bad. This time, with the superior threatening to send her back to the motherhouse if her grades didn’t improve, she did better. But then the superior saw how much she liked to bake on her days off and told Sister Alice Marie they already had enough nurses. Would she consider being a dietitian instead?

Although the neophyte nun didn’t know what a dietitian really did, she agreed, thinking she’d wind up working in a hospital kitchen with no responsibilities. But soon she found out she had to go to college for four years, which she did. And after, during her internship, she realized there was, in fact, a whole lot of responsibility to being a dietitian.

“But I also found out that God gave me a gift for organization, and he made me responsible. I liked being the boss. I still do, ask anybody,” she said with a chuckle, elbows planted on her desk. “Because I can do things. I can make changes and I don’t have to go and get a whole lot of permission from people.

“And I found out early about ‘it’s better to ask for pardon than ask permission.’ It works.”

Hands-on boss

Sister Alice Marie is still a hands-on manager 37 years after starting St. Vincent Meals on Wheels. From 1977 to the late ‘90s, she was both a driver and a “runner,” carrying the meals in sealed trays from the delivering vehicle to the client’s apartment. But health issues started taking their toll, and the Daughter of Charity reluctantly became homebound to Meals on Wheels’ headquarters herself, located the last 11 years in a cream-colored stucco building behind St. Vincent Medical Center.   

After rising at 5 a.m. to do an hour of meditation, community prayer and attend Mass, she gets to work by eight o’clock. She makes the rounds, checking that the cooks are following the menus she’s made out to the letter. And when the food tray line is up and running, she checks that out, too. There’s also the 30-some routes to monitor and office workers to attend to.

It adds up to a pretty good-sized business, with 76 employees, 65 of whom are full-timers, and 300 volunteers. So there’s also tons of paperwork, too, which she likes to do on Sundays when nobody’s around. She brings in her CDs and cranks up Johnny Cash, her favorite, really loud.

“I pretty much have my hand in everything,” she said, holding out her hands, palms up. “I have supervisors, but I’m really supervising the supervisors. ‘Cause I want stuff done my way. 

“And hardly any of these people were trained in kitchens. When they came here, they knew nothing. We hire people that other places won’t. That’s part of our ministry, too.”

‘I’ve been hungry before’

So why hasn’t the nearly 80-year-old nun burnt out? After all, she’s had knee and back health problems, asthma and other lung issues, and neuropathy in her feet. And three and one-half years ago, there was major heart surgery replacing the aortic valve along with two bypasses.

“I guess ‘cause I really like what I’m doing, and I feel like I’m doing good for people. When I was a kid, there were times when we didn’t have enough to eat. We had five kids. I’ve been hungry before. And I don’t ever want to see other people hungry if I can do something about it,” she said.

“We’re doing what God did himself. Feed the hungry. And that’s what my life is all about, it’s just do what Jesus did. We don’t proselytize. You preach by your example, like St. Francis said. You know, you preach and sometimes you use words. You show by your example that we are Christians and we really love these people.”

After a moment, Sister Alice Marie had some more thoughts.

“I have a vocation to serve the poor, and I was given this duty,” she said. “So I’m very grateful I can do it and I’m still able to do it. God gives me all the ideas and stuff. And I pray about them and I try to make them all work. And he also gives me the energy to do it. I mean, I’ve prayed ever since the beginning that I’ll have the energy to do what I have to do.

“So Meals on Wheels is really a spiritual program,” she pointed out. “A lot of people don’t understand it. But they follow it because ‘Sister said so.’ It’s a spiritual program because it could not have run all these years. And it could not have started without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and God and following the advice of St. Vincent de Paul about how we are to serve the poor.”

On the road

A little before one o’clock on that Thursday afternoon in February, Sister Alice Marie was driving to Echo Park in a new white Honda van with a disability sticker. We were heading to a senior citizen apartment with mostly Korean residents. Fifteen minutes later, she deftly squeezed the bulky vehicle into a parking place between two cars and got her walker out from the back. 

An elderly man and woman sat at different tables inside a large room. Only they had come down from their apartments in the senior citizen complex to hear the nun’s Meals on Wheels’ talk. Maybe other residents didn’t know she’d started and still ran one of the largest food programs for the elderly and disabled homebound in the United States. Or that she has advised mayors, city council members and country supervisors on hunger. 

In any case, Sister Alice Marie seemed unfazed at the low turnout, sipping bottled water to ease her voice, hoarse from talking all day.

“I run the Meals on Wheels program out of St. Vincent’s,” she said. “And we’ve had the program for over 35 years. Our program is for people who are homebound, and there’s no age limit. You can be any age.”

The manager, a young Asian woman in a black sweater and jeans holding a clipboard, stepped forward. “Can I translate for them?” 

“Oh, sure. I’m sorry.”

When the manager stopped talking in Korean, the nun continued: “We provide meals to seniors and others six days a week. A hot meal every day at noon with a contribution of $2.50 if you can afford it. We offer a snack for nighttime, which is a sandwich and some fruit for $2.50. And we deliver it all at one time, between 10 o’clock and 1 o’clock.”

Again, the young woman translated her words. 

It went on like this for about 15 minutes, with only three more residents showing up late. When Sister Alice Marie asked if there were any questions, the manager asked about seniors who have special diets.

“We do have renal diets, low-sodium diets, soft diets, diabetic diets,” she said. “So there are special diets if you need it. If you tell us what it is, if we can do it, we will do it. But there’s some we can’t do.”

The manager looked around the room and said there was one man who was interested in getting the meals. “How does he apply?”

The Daughter of Charity gave out their phone number, adding that a worker named Mr. Lee, who spoke Korean, was there during weekday hours. When there were no more queries, she said, “Thank you, very much.”

The five residents politely applauded. 

Outside, making her way with the walker to the parked van, Sister Alice Marie had to stop to catch her breath.

80-day celebration

On the ride back home, she never mentioned the terrible turnout. Never gave even a hint of disappointment. 

But she did share what she thought of the prolonged commotion for the 80-day celebration for her 80th birthday. And then there was the $800 ticket cost for the “Sister Alice Marie Quinn, 80 Years & Still Cookin’” gala dinner on March 14 at a Beverly Hills hotel, possibly featuring celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, a supporter of Meals on Wheels.

“Well, I thought the 80-day thing was kind of crazy,” she said. “You know, my birthday isn’t until June. But I know their whole goal is to make friends and to tell people about us. And that’s why I agreed to do all these things. ‘Cause the more people who know about us, then they will help us.”

About the expensive dinner, she shook her head and said, “If I had my way, I’d have a hall somewhere and invite my friends, people I really know. And I’d have peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. 

“But they need to raise money. And they told me, ‘We’re going to raise a million dollars.’ And I said, ‘No you’re not.’”

And her expression eased. “But they do need to raise a lot more money, ‘cause I’m not stopping, you know.” 

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