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Mercy Sister Augusta Reilly’s advocacy for Baltimoreans in recovery recognized

This portrait was used on a placque honoring Sister of Mercy Augusta Reilly at the home Tuerk House dedicated in her name. (Courtesy Tuerk House)

Inspiring. Compassionate. Tenacious. Funny. Challenging. Vulnerable. Humble. Creative. Fearless.

Those are just a few of the ways people describe Sister of Mercy Augusta Reilly, who for nearly 40 years has dedicated her ministry in Baltimore to developing more compassionate and effective ways to support those fighting the scourge of addiction. While that challenging work usually goes unnoticed, Sister Augusta recently got some attention. 

As a small group of supporters and friends loudly applauded her arrival Aug. 20, Sister Augusta walked up the stairs of a newly renovated home for women recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, which to her great surprise was being named in her honor.

The new facility on Gwynn Oak Avenue in Baltimore City is an initiative of the Tuerk House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center that since 1970 has provided healing and recovery services to Baltimore’s at-risk population. The newly-named Sister Augusta Reilly, R.S.M., Home for Women in Recovery reflects not only her leadership role over the years as a board member of Tuerk House. but also recognition of her lifelong commitment to improve the lives of men and women in the city seeking to be healed.  

Sister Augusta, 83, the eldest of 13 children, was born and raised in Mobile, Ala. At an early age Patricia, her baptismal name, already had a will of her own. A high school teacher asked if she wanted to help her teach a number of African-American students in a rural settlement outside the city. She recalls her parents were concerned she was taking a risk. Not so their daughter. 

“I felt so motivated by the experience,” she said.  

Sister of Mercy Augusta Reilly visits with Bernard Gyebi-Foster, right, executive director of Tuerk House, and Anissa Morlock, his executive assistant, Aug. 20, when the treatment program dedicated its new Home for Women in Recovery in her name. (Courtesy Yaw Osei-Owusu/Tuerk House)

A top student, she was editor of her high school newspaper.

“I learned a lot about journalism and editing, but I often got into trouble staying too late at night at the paper,” said Sister Augusta, who remembers the principal’s displeasure when she published a special “April Fools” edition.

In 1955 Patricia Reilly moved to Baltimore to attend Mount St. Agnes College and became a novice in the Sisters of Mercy the following year. She made her perpetual vows in 1964.  

Teaching was Sister Augusta’s calling for many years, becoming one of the first faculty members of Baltimore’s Mercy High School when it opened in 1960.

“She was a dynamic teacher and very creative with her students,” said Sister of Mercy Patricia Smith, a colleague who taught with her for many years who is better known as Sister Pat. “There wasn’t an envelope she didn’t push.”

Sister of Mercy Helen Amos, the former CEO of Mercy Medical Center and still executive chairwoman of its board of trustees, recalls how Sister Augusta challenged her students “to embrace life and possibility, to ask questions and challenge the status quo.” 

She was also a dynamic and beloved drama teacher who transformed the school’s coffee house into a space for students to produce plays, dance and musical events. Like some of her colleagues, Sister Augusta chose to expand her academic career, earning a master’s degree in English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  

When Sister Augusta returned from Michigan, she plunged into the community-based work that would be the focal point of her life: bringing comfort and services to those who were suffering from addiction. Due to her particular interest in expanding support services for women, she was among the RSMs and School Sisters of Notre Dame who helped found Marian House, a program for women coming out of jail. In 1982 she became its second executive director. 

“It was her passion working with those women who had so many needs,” said Sister Patricia, “and she brought an energy and high level of creativity that marked her tenure there.” 

At the time, the Sisters of Mercy were moving out of the more traditional callings of education and health care and into social services. Sister Augusta was a leader in that early focus on social justice issues. This generation of sisters was old enough to be formed in the traditional ways of religious life, with its focus on prayer and discipline, explained Sister Patricia, but young enough to be excited about changing their lives and starting new ministries.  

Under Sister Augusta’s leadership, Marian House began to take a more comprehensive and compassionate strategy to support recovering women coming out of the city’s Women’s Detention Center. Recognizing how difficult it was for these women to rebuild their lives and find employment and find a place to live, Sister Augusta sought to find new ways to fill those gaps and reduce recidivism rates. She intently focused on the women themselves, meeting with each entering resident and establishing, with many, a lifelong relationship of support and love.

Sister of Mercy Augusta Reilly takes in the view from the front porch of Tuerk House’s new Home for Women in Recovery, which was dedicated in her name Aug. 20. (Courtesy Yaw Osei-Owusu/Tuerk House)

Over the years, Marian House has served thousands of women through its transitional and permanent housing as well as its support services programs that include counseling, educational services, employment assistance and life skills training.  

After many years working at Marian House, Sister Augusta joined Tuerk House, becoming an interim director and then board president from 1991 to 1997. The organization provides a continuum of care including inpatient and outpatient treatments to more than 2,000 patients a year. 

There were ripples of laughter at the house dedication, when longtime board member John Duberg said in jest, “All she would ever say to us during our meetings was: ‘What are we doing about helping more women?’” 

The new home on Gwynn Oak Avenue reflects Sister Augusta’s lifelong campaign to address that growing need.  

Among the changes and reforms that have been made in institutions such as Marian House and Tuerk House has been to hire women who are in recovery themselves. 

The house named for Sister Augusta also reflects physical improvements in the facilities. The remodeled space offers a meditation room, bright cheerful artwork, a brand new kitchen, bedrooms for 13 women and a large backyard for gatherings. While residents will benefit from a full-time therapist and a range of other expert and clinical teams, Sister Augusta knows the challenges these women face. 

“No matter how much we offer you in terms of support programs,” she said, “you have to decide to change.”

She added, “Everyone needs one person in their lives who truly loves them.” 

Asked how she felt about having the new home named after her, Sister Augusta said, behind a COVID-19 mask that obscured the smile evident in her eyes, “I’ll never forgive you for doing this; there are so many more worthy people than myself.” 

Also see:

A Baltimore landmark, Women’s Industrial Exchange, will live on with Marian House

Marian House brings ‘new life’ to former parish school at Blessed Sacrament

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