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Sister takes path rarely traveled, and it makes all the difference

At Rose Haven, Cathie Boerboom makes caring for others her life's work

At 9 a.m. on a weekday, Old Town-Chinatown hangs suspended between night and day.

The hot clubs Ñ Satyricon, Berbati's, Dante's, XV Ñ have been closed since 2 a.m., and the Chinese restaurants, which exude the neighborhood's intense cooking-oil odor, aren't yet open.

Nonetheless, the streets are crowded, and most of the people on them appear to be homeless. Women Ñ some of them with children Ñ are clustered in front of a storefront at 116 N.W. Third Ave.

It's Rose Haven, a Catholic Charities-funded community center for women and children in need. It's run by a contemporary Catholic nun who views working in Portland's grittiest area as the logical Ñ and desirable Ñ outcome of a childhood spent in an only slightly modernized version of 'Little House on the Prairie.'

'I had a great, fun childhood,' says Sister Cathie Boerboom, a member of the Good Shepherd Sisters, who will be honored for her work Wednesday as one of the Royal Rosarians' Newsmakers of the Year. 'And it never stopped. I'm 56 going on 20, probably actually going on 35. When life's fun, age is irrelevant.'

The farmhouse where Boerboom grew up Ñ literally on the prairie, in southwest Minnesota Ñ had no running water, no indoor toilet and no refrigerator when she was born.

But she did have 66 first cousins, some of whom were her best friends; parents who took in five of their neighbors' six kids when their father got sick; and a strong Catholic community that 'came from everywhere' to harvest the family's fields.

'We never knew we were poor,' Boerboom says, 'we were so rich in love and relatives. It was the kind of community everyone would like to have.'

A new direction

At 19, Boerboom, who has many relatives in the church, says she began looking at various Catholic orders to join. But she ruled out the Good Shepherd Sisters, a small order founded several centuries ago to help women leave prostitution. 'I thought my home life was too good for me to be able to understand people with problems,' she says.

Nonetheless, at the urging of her priest, she and her parents went to visit the then Minnesota-based order.

'It was horrible,' she says. 'We had to walk in snow over our knees. The house literally had bats. Everything was so negative Ñ and I absolutely loved it!'

Shortly thereafter she became a Good Shepherd sister.

'I'd dated, dated for years,' she says of her pre-order life. 'Enjoyed it, had a good time. You have to know what you're saying no to before you say yes. I had intended to get married to a farmer and have about eight kids.

'Stuff was never important to me,' she says of her decision to live in relative poverty. 'But it was really clear to me when I went to the convent that if I stayed, I would not have a husband and children. I knew that if it wasn't the right place, I wouldn't stay, because I wasn't going to give up my life. The God I know doesn't ask me to be unhappy.'

It was, she remains convinced, exactly the right place.

'Celibacy is not as painful as most people think, at least not for me,' she says. 'In my 20s and early 30s, I didn't care about not having a man in my life as much as not having children. As I got older, companionship became more important.

'But I can honestly say now that my relationship with God is so intimate and fulfilling that a partner is not something I have to have. I have been blessed all my life with people who love me and whom I love. I have been a spoiled woman all my life. I'm never alone.'

A mission accomplished

While physical possessions are unimportant to Good Shepherd Sisters, each human being is significant.

'Every single person is of more importance than a whole world of things,' says Boerboom, summing up the belief she shares with the other 7,000 to 8,000 members of the small, worldwide order. 'We just really believe that, and we live that. There is no such thing as a throwaway person.'

From that point of view, Boerboom is surrounded by treasures. The 2,100-square-foot storefront, which serves as many as 97 women and children each weekday, is packed with women eating or sleeping; women with all of their possessions stacked at their feet; and women with babies and toddlers in strollers.

'Our highest priority is to get them (the women with children) into housing,' she says. 'You can't have kids on the street.'

Boerboom and the rest of Rose Haven's staff treat the women Ñ some of whom are indistinguishable from suburban housewives; others are unkempt or mentally ill Ñ as if they are paying guests in a homey but down-at-the-heel bed and breakfast.

'We offer welcome and community here,' Boerboom explains. 'What happens here is that women drop the competitive stance you need to be on the streets and become community. What happens, in an environment where everything says, 'You have a right,' is people begin to see that they are being hurt, are being used. That's when people begin to want to get clean (from drugs), to get to the doctor.'

Rose Haven's spirit of community is contagious. Visitors find themselves offering to spend their day off driving a homeless woman's cat to a shelter or to donate the clothing, bedding and personal hygiene items that the center makes available to its guests.

But it all makes sense in the presence of someone who perceives Old Town-Chinatown, at 9 a.m. on a weekday morning, as a blessed, even fun place to be.

'The faith, the courage, the joy of people who have been in tough situations for so long amazes me,' Boerboom says of Rose Haven residents. 'All we can ever do is invite. The person has to do the rest. And it is such an incredible privilege to be part of that process. Right now, it's clear to me that I'm doing what I was called to do. I often tell people, 'I was born to do this.' '

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..