Good Shepherd Nuns Retire -- `Wayward' Girls Got Help, Hope At Home Run By Convent

When the Sisters of the Good Shepherd closed their home for wayward girls in Wallingford 24 years ago it was seen as the end of an era.

But the era really ended yesterday when four of the last five Good Shepherd Sisters in Seattle turned in the keys to the convent and moved away, effectively ending 106 years of service by the Catholic order in Western Washington.

Only Sister Vera Gallagher, who'll continue to run a counseling center she founded, and write books on abuse and healing, is left to remind Seattle of a time when troubled teenage girls ended up not on the streets but behind the stone walls, locked doors and barred windows of the Home of the Good Shepherd.

The young women, most of whom were runaways, were referred to the nuns by juvenile court, which labeled them "incorrigible." The newspapers called them "wayward." And the community gossiped that many were waiting out pregnancies.

"The perception was that unwed mothers were sent there, but they weren't," Sister Gallagher said. "In order to protect the girls, we really didn't tell the community much about what we were doing; and, because nobody knew, that was what they imagined. But they were just high-energy girls who had no place to go."

Deborah Mullins, 46, of Burien, was one of those high-energy girls.

The Good Shepherd nuns "were the best thing that ever happened to me," Mullins said yesterday.

"They gave me direction in my life. I wasn't a bad kid. But I was from a divorced family. I was the youngest of 12 children, and I was a real manipulator."

Mullins remembers crying when she arrived - "on my 16th birthday" - and crying when she left two years later "to face the cold, cruel world."

"We didn't call them Sister," Mullins said. "We called them Mother. They never screamed at you when you did something wrong. They'd be just totally disappointed in you, and that would make you know what you needed to do."

The Good Shepherd order was founded in 1641 to provide shelter for women in need. The neoclassical building the order built on Sunnyside Avenue North in 1906 served as a convent, home and school for about 90 girls at a time. When the program was closed, the building was sold to the city, which has used it since as a community center.

The girls attended chapel every day, even though about 60 percent were Protestant. They went to St. Euphrasia School year-round. They ran a laundry, washing the sheets and tablecloths used by the railroad.

"The nuns had this mission," said Sheilah Nichols Castor, who was sent to the home at age 14. "You had to be able to type, you had to be able to take shorthand, and you had to be able to cook something. When I came out, of course, I could only cook in batches of 30."

The nuns always had material to give the girls to make new clothes, and after fund-raising drives they gave them money to buy new outfits. When other high schools were having proms, the nuns threw dances and invited young men from Seattle University as the girls' escorts.

"We weren't all rosaries and stations of the cross," said Castor, who's 45 now and the mother of a grown daughter.

Castor has a friend from the home who has been in and out of trouble all her adult life. "But she was the exception, not the rule."

Castor, now a postal-service employee, stayed at the home two years. She was sent to her mother in California, but within weeks she'd run away again and was calling the nuns.

"It was so different then," she said. "Today, I'd have just ended up on the street. Girls like that now just end up getting thrown away by society. Then they end up selling themselves on the street because they have to do that to live. They become hard core. We had girls who wouldn't go to school, but we didn't have hard core."

Castor is right. The times were very different when the nuns closed the home of the Good Shepherd in 1973 and moved to Christ the King Convent in North Seattle because of financial reasons.

Society was changing, too. The state no longer picked up teens who were living on the streets. Drugs were becoming more prevalent and more potent.

"We hated to lose the home, but we realized the laws were beyond us," said Sister Valerie Brannan, who is retiring to Portland, along with Sisters Fran Groesbeck and Francis Spurgeon. Sister Madelene Erlynne is moving Denver.

When the home closed, the sisters went into parish ministries, directing programs for the elderly or running religious education classes for Catholic children who attended public schools. Sister Gallagher opened Shepherd's Counseling Service on Capitol Hill.

The Good Shepherd religious order is not the only one that the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese is losing this year. In May, the last 10 Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart left their convent in Seattle. And the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary have announced plans to leave St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace.

Even with those losses, the archdiocese has about 800 nuns belonging to 21 orders.

But the Good Shepherd Sisters were role models for many now-middle-aged women.

Castor volunteers for nonprofits and at Holy Names Academy, where her daughter graduated 10 years ago.

Sylvia Calhoun Townsend, who was a 17-year-old runaway who had also spent time in a West Seattle orphanage when she went to Good Shepherd, has raised a developmentally disabled foster son and seen more than 100 children through her Christian day-care center.

"I try to play a part in their lives," she said. "I pray with them and read Scripture to them. I want to be like the sisters and help them get a good grounding in their lives."

Sally Macdonald's phone-message number is 206-464-2248. Her e-mail address is: