A news article by Elizabeth Eaton.
Elizabeth Eaton is an aspiring journalist studying at the the University of Arizona.
TUCSON, Ariz. – Jean Fedigan hates March 31.
“The 31st to me is emotional and sad, and it is a time of grief,” Fedigan said softly as she held back tears. “For the next week, I’ll weep.”
That’s because Fedigan is the executive director of the Sister Jose Women’s Shelter, which provides emergency shelter for homeless women during the winter. Because it is classified as part of the Tucson Operation Deep Freeze Program, Fedigan can only take in women overnight from Nov. 15 to March 31.
When the 31st rolls around, Fedigan and her crew of dedicated volunteers can no longer give the homeless women whom they have sheltered for months a safe place to sleep.
“These people who we have protected, and loved, and cared for, are on the streets,” Fedigan said. “There are some who won’t make it, and I worry deeply for all of them.”
Fedigan has always felt that it is her duty to take care of the least among us, which has largely been influenced by her Catholic faith. When she was younger, Fedigan spent time volunteering in India with Mother Theresa’s group, but it wasn’t until she went to France that she started to seriously consider opening her own shelter.
Lourdes, France, is a small village where Catholics come to heal and pray. Fedigan knew of the town because the pastor of her parish made frequent trips there, and she finally got to visit when she learned that she could go as a volunteer. Every year, more than six million people travel to Lourdes in various states of illnesses to be healed, and they are fed by a rotating staff of volunteers who come from all around the world to serve those in need. Fedigan spent the summer as one of those volunteers and came home completely changed.
“The opportunity for people to serve and to volunteer changes your life, especially when you are able to touch those that you serve so closely,” Fedigan said. “And I was able to do that in Lourdes, and truly, that led me to Sister Jose’s.”
Fedigan returned from France determined to help the poor back in Tucson. With the support of a fellow church-goer and 22 other volunteers, she started her first Operation Deep Freeze night shelter. The next year, Fedigan officially opened the Sister Jose Women’s Shelter at its current location in the homeless corridor at 18 W. 18th St., and she has been sheltering women during the winter nights there for the past five years.
Denatta is one of the women who have consistently come to Sister Jose’s when it is open. The shelter operates out of a tiny, ramshackle 700 square foot house that can only fit 12 women each night. But the first time that Denatta came to Sister Jose’s, on a freezing night when it seemed like the rain would never stop, Fedigan made an exception.
“She made room for me on a cot back in the laundry room, fit me in… I was the 13th,” Denatta said. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Denatta struggles with both addiction and a serious mental illness, but said that Fedigan has always been patient with her and cared for her. Even though Denatta is still relying on Fedigan and the shelter to get back on her feet, she said that the kindness she has been shown has inspired her to one day help women in situations like hers.
“[Fedigan] has taken the time to love me, most of all, and accept me,” Denatta managed to say shakily before she had to stop and sob with gratitude. “She gave me hope and encouragement. I don’t know what I would have done without Sister Jose’s during the deep freeze.”
Another woman at Sister Jose’s, Christina, was also brought to tears when asked to comment on what her life would be like without Fedigan.
“I wouldn’t have a place to stay,” Christina said before she too started weeping.
Part of the reason that Fedigan is so motivated to help women like Denatta and Christina is that she knows just how precious, and short, life can be.
Almost exactly a year ago, Fedigan was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because of the size of the tumor, Fedigan opted to have a mastectomy of her left breast. Faced with her own mortality, Fedigan said that started taking care to enrich someone’s life every day, because she doesn’t know when she will run out of days.
“It makes me sad to think I’ve wasted a day, and I try very hard not to do that, and I think that consciousness is raised higher when you have a disease like breast cancer,” Fedigan said. “You learn, I think, to just value love so much more.”
Because she has grown to love the women she cares for at the shelter, each March 31 has become increasingly harder and harder for Fedigan. Recently, however, Fedigan started looking into moving the shelter to a larger complex that would have the capacity to operate as a transitional home and offer refuge for women every night of the year.
“There are eight toilets, that is so exciting!” Fedigan said, her eyes lighting up as she described the potential new place. She thinks that, there, Sister Jose’s would have the room to offer shelter to more women, as well as provide more services such as laundry and showers. Her eventual hope is to utilize the extra space to run a thrift shop within the shelter.
“We could train the women a little bit at a time and give them skills, wouldn’t that be exciting?” Fedigan said, joyous at the prospect of being able to help these women just that much more.
Fedigan has given so much to the women who seek shelter at Sister Jose’s, and yet she claims that she is nothing extraordinary. She reluctantly agreed to an interview because she does not want her personal life to overshadow the larger issue; she insists that it is not about her, but instead about the homeless women and the struggles they face every day. And, Fedigan said, the homeless women aren’t the only ones affected by Sister Jose’s; founding the shelter has changed who she is throughout the years.
“I have learned what it is to love unconditionally,” Fedigan said. “I have learned what it is to really find the beauty and greatness of each individual, and to discover how easy it is and how wonderful it is to reach out and touch another human being at their core… And it’s made me a far better person than I ever was.”