When Leslie Smith limped her way into the Urban Ministry Center of Raleigh, a third of her body was recovering from major burns, the bandages weeping. Sister Helen Wright knew immediately Smith was someone in extra need, and someone extra special.
It was 1984, and Smith had just been released from the burn unit at UNC Hospital. She was homeless, floating around the various shelters in downtown Raleigh.
That day, Wright provided essentials like city bus vouchers to get her back to UNC so her bandages could be changed, and called social services. She also gave Smith food vouchers.
Smith, 52, is now a doctor, an internist working in Boone. Wright was the first in a series of Good Samaritans who reached out to Smith during her long recovery from homelessness and despair.
Wright died this month at age 94 from congestive heart failure. When she died, Smith was holding her hand at the Notre Dame Long Term Care Center in Worcester, Mass.
“She’s just been like a mother to me,” Smith said.
Sister Helen Wright was also known for many years in her religious life as Sister Charlotte Marie. She was 23 when she became a nun, and had already earned a master’s degree.
An urban minister
Though she was only in Raleigh about five years in the early 1980s, she left a legacy of compassion for the homeless and was known as an outspoken political advocate against poverty.
Being poor, she said in a Raleigh Times article, “is to experience a horrible evil.” Her order, the Sisters of Notre Dame, is particularly invested in fighting poverty, homelessness and other such injustices, Smith said.
After “retiring” from her teaching career – she taught theology at the collegiate and graduate levels at universities in Boston and Washington, D.C., for 40 years – Wright applied to be the first director of the fledgling Urban Ministry Center, now called Urban Ministries of Wake County.
Wright was chosen out of many from the national search, said Anne Burke, the group’s executive director. Wright was initially the only paid staff member, but Burke was eventually hired as her assistant and took over as director when Wright left in 1986.
“She really sort of created the vision with the founding board and helped to develop the network of congregations that became the original supporters,” Burke said.
“She’d never done anything like this before, but she’d always taught about social inequalities,” Burke continued. “This was sort of a way for her to put her theories into practice.”
Those theories involved righting the inequalities that she felt created poverty and homelessness, such as practices by slumlords, double standards between the genders for pay, education gaps between races and socioeconomic groups, and a lack of medical care and other services for the disenfranchised.
Open Door Clinic
Under her direction the center opened the Open Door Clinic, seeing uninsured patients as the earliest free clinic in North Carolina still in operation, Burke said.
Sister Helen shared her views on poverty and homelessness “anywhere that people would let her speak,” Burke said. “She didn’t like attention for herself, but she never minded attention for her cause.”
One of those causes was an increase in shelters for the homeless. The center was able to provide resources, but was not zoned for offering overnight assistance. Wright played a major role in the creation of the Arc Shelter, one of Raleigh first homeless shelters that operated through the Urban Ministry Center in the mid-1980s.
When two homeless men froze in Raleigh in winter 1983, Wright’s lobbying efforts were finally heard by the city, and the zoning and permits were approved for a new shelter, Burke said.
The Arc Shelter went through a number of iterations, first men-only, then men and women, and finally women-only. In 2001, the Arc Shelter was renamed the Helen Wright Center for Women. It was an honor that Wright seemed quietly proud of.
“She was all about empowering women,” Smith said. “The focus of her life was on justice for woman.”
Not much is known of her life before becoming a nun. She was born and raised in Canada, part of a working class family, Smith said. Though Wright did not speak much about her family, she was thought to have been quite close to her father. She had one sister who was able, in her old age, to move into the same assisted living unit as Wright during her final years.
Even in her 80s and 90s, Wright remained involved with the causes she championed so successfully throughout her career as a nun. In that time, she created a program that helped hopefuls obtain U.S. citizenship – she saw the black market of unemployment many noncitizens had to resort to as a direct path toward poverty.
There were times over the years when Smith lost touch with Wright, but anytime Smith reached out, Wright answered. The last few years, Smith made trips from Boone to Boston every few months to check on the woman who literally saved her life.
Without that first helpful interaction with Wright, Smith cannot imagine where she might have wound up.
After earning her undergraduate degree from Duke University in her early 30s, Smith entered medical school at 38.
She settled in Western North Carolina because of her interest in bringing medical care to rural, poorer areas. She has an insight to that population that many doctors don’t.
“She didn’t just help people – she helped people to become self-sufficient,” Smith said. She “helped them to become successful so they could help others.”