By Tim Puet, Catholic Times Reporter
Sister Nadine Buchanan, OP, can’t wait until she can hug people once more.
For the past 11 years, Sister Nadine has ministered in the Franklinton and Hilltop areas of Columbus’ west side to the homeless and to people exploited by human traffickers, bringing them bags filled with two days’ worth of sandwiches, sweets, water and juice.
She has been making the 10-mile drive to the west side from the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Peace on the city’s east side three or four times a week and has distributed tens of thousands of the bags during the years. In 2019 alone, she estimates that she handed out 2,500 bags, containing items she purchased or were donated. The sisters pay for her car and gas.
But because of the coronavirus pandemic, she hasn’t visited members of what she calls her “street family” since March. She has kept in touch with some of them through the agencies that serve them, but it’s not the same as looking them in the eyes and telling them God loves and cares for them.
“I talk with Ben Sears of the Mount Carmel Medicine Street outreach program and with the staff of Sanctuary Night and they tell me people are asking all the time, ‘Where’s Sister?’” she said. “I love being on the streets, giving and receiving hugs and listening to what people need to talk about. I long so much to be able to do that again once enough people are vaccinated against the virus that I can resume my ministry.
“There are so many good people on the streets who have been so traumatized because of drug use or human trafficking. I’ve gotten to know wonderful men and wonderful women who have been trapped by the circumstances of their lives and tell me, ‘I didn’t know I was good enough.’
“What they need most is to talk to people and be able to trust them. They don’t need preached to. They need love, compassion, care and non-judgment. I tell them, ‘I love you because I love you. You’re made in the image of God.’ Some haven’t heard anyone tell them that for a long time, and it brings reassurance,” Sister Nadine said.
Although she can’t currently visit the people she serves, she is putting together holiday bags to be distributed with the help of the Mount Carmel street outreach, Integrated Services and Sanctuary on Sullivant Avenue. The bags will include candy, peanut butter crackers, fruit snacks, socks, lip balm and McDonald’s gift certificates.
Sister Nadine’s street ministry began in 2009 while she was recovering from surgery. “During my recovery, I read a story online about people trying to help trafficking survivors and said, ‘I have to get involved with that,’” she said.
After receiving training in anti-human-trafficking programs from the Salvation Army in Columbus, she began working with Freedom a la Cart, a catering and meals-at-home company that trains human trafficking survivors for jobs in the food service industry, and with the Franklin County CATCH (Changing Actions to Change Habits) Court, a specialized court founded by retired Franklin County Municipal Judge Paul Herbert in 2009. Its purpose is to help trafficking survivors recover through trauma-based counseling and drug and alcohol treatment. She continues to volunteer with Freedom a la Cart and is a member of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless.
Sister Nadine and Freedom a la Cart staff member April Thacker, who died in May, got the Hyatt Regency Columbus hotel to donate sandwiches for holiday meals, which they delivered in 2009 to people on the west-
side streets. That spurred Sister Nadine to more action. “I realized those people are hungry every day,” she said. “So I began going out on my own to help them and just kept doing it.
“Even as a child, I always wanted to do something for God,” she said. “I was always attracted to helping the poor and those in need, especially people who had to beg for the necessities of life.”
Sister Nadine, 70, the youngest of four children, two of them deceased, spent the early years of her life on a small farm in Muskingum County before her family moved to Zanesville in 1955. “We moved because there was still anti-Catholic prejudice at that time,” she said. “The Ku Klux Klan wouldn’t let us ride a school bus. We moved to town so we could walk or take a city bus to school.
She attended Zanesville St. Thomas Aquinas School and Rosecrans High School, from which she graduated in 1968. When she was in fifth grade, her father, an Armco Steel employee for 40 years, suffered a massive heart attack and stroke and couldn’t go back to his job, so she began working as a baby sitter, serving as many as 15 families, and doing housekeeping chores.
At age 18, she worked for a year at the former Essex Wire Co. plant in Zanesville, making backup lights for Ford vehicles. “I was part of an all-woman crew with male supervisors,” she said. “These were the working poor. They had to work because they had kids to support.
Every day, I carried a crucifix in my pocket to help give me courage.
“When I left the plant, all the women on that crew gave me cards and presents. One of them told me, ‘It’s rare when someone comes into this job and walks out better than when she came in.’ I’ll never forget that,” she said.
She then attended Muskingum Area Technical College for two years, earning an associate degree in early childhood education. She had wanted since childhood to be a Dominican sister because she was taught by Dominicans in grade school, and in 1971, she entered the congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs, now the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
She made her first profession of vows in 1975 and her final profession in 1980, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in early and middle school education from Ohio Dominican College (now University). She later earned a master’s degree in educational theory and practice from Ohio State University and a chaplaincy certificate from the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.
Her first assignment as a sister was teaching 3- to 5-year-olds at the former St. Mary of the Springs Montessori School. In the Diocese of Columbus, she also taught at Columbus Holy Name School and Columbus Our Lady of Peace School. Her last teaching assignment was at Lancaster St. Mary School. Her career in education also included periods at schools in the Diocese of Steubenville and in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut.
She has lived in Columbus since 1997, serving as a transcript evaluator at Ohio Dominican, in pastoral ministry at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in hospice ministry with Mount Carmel Health and as a tutor at the Dominican Learning Center.
“One of my longest assignments as a teacher was at a school in Rye, New York,” Sister Nadine said. “Rye is one of the nation’s wealthiest communities, and when I started a Christmas collection asking the children if they could bring in some of their clothes and toys to give to the poor, it was a real challenge. The parents didn’t want their children to know about poor people.
“But after a while, things started to change. Parents started to realize that it was important for their children to appreciate how fortunate they were and to know how they could use their wealth to help others. When I left Rye, many parents thanked me for educating both them and their children about poverty. That meant a lot.”
Sister Nadine recognizes that she works in an area of Columbus where many people wouldn’t venture but says that doesn’t bother her.
“I don’t go out there with blinders on. I know the situations I could be walking into, but God in his grace has given me the ability to do this work,” she said. “I don’t feel afraid when I’m on the streets. People sense this, and that’s one reason they’re able to trust me, and I can form a bond with them. I hope I’ll be able to continue with this ministry for as long as I’m capable of doing the work.”
To read more about Sr. Nadine’s work, click the links below:
To support the work of the Dominican Sisters of Peace, please click here.