“The Case of the Missing Virgin,” has Sr. Charity Keolsch stumped and it’s a mystery she hopes to solve in her remaining time on earth.
Because she will be 92 in two months, she realizes time is of the essence and she hopes that Catholic Herald readers can help solve the case.
To lay the groundwork, a little background on Sr. Charity – but very little, since she’s a private person who shies away from publicity.
Born in Milwaukee, she joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1942, but when the winds of Vatican II blew, she no longer felt comfortable with the order. Instead, with Bishop Leo Brust’s approval, she professed private vows and since 1976 she has lived her life as a consecrated virgin.
In this capacity, she supported herself as a toy designer, but continues to wear a habit and goes by the name Sr. Charity. Always drawn to the poor, especially homeless and “bag ladies,” Sr. Charity followed in the footsteps of two of her role models: Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. She met both and worked with Dorothy Day for some time.
As a consecrated virgin, she worked for more than 10 years at an Episcopal shelter in Chicago and the last 12 years of her working life – until age 87 – were spent helping out at the Cathedral Center in downtown Milwaukee.
She always dreamed of starting an order for religious women with the mission of helping homeless women. While that dream never materialized, she came up with a plan to bring Christ – and his mother – to the poor.
“Some years ago, I got the idea that it would be good to have a statue of the Blessed Mother in a very bad neighborhood among the poorest of the poor, the wanderers,” she told the Catholic Herald.
She approached several of her friends and people who had supported her in her ministry and they pooled money to purchase a statue in 2001.
Grace Erato, a member of Prince of Peace Parish, gave the largest donation of $200 and still has receipts detailing the purchase.
“She was so good and so sweet and if she came up with an idea, everyone would want to help her,” said Erato of her decision to pitch in for the statue. “We knew this was a God thing and if she came up with it, everybody was confident she knew what she was doing.”
Their pooled money totaled just over $1,200 and Sr. Charity selected a statue from the T.H. Stemper Company.
The statue of the Blessed Virgin that she chose had what she described as “horrible colors, red, purple, but it was the only thing I could possibly afford,” recalled Sr. Charity of the statue which cost $735.
But with the help of artist Othmar Moroder, who repainted it, Mary underwent a makeover in the traditional blue and white. At the bottom of the statue, Sr. Charity added a plaque with the inscription, “Our Lady of the Street: My Child Come Home.”
Her next task was to find a home for the freshly painted Virgin Mary and she headed to an area known as home to prostitutes, drug addicts, poor and mentally ill.
“I went to North 27th Street and looked for a place to put her,” she recalled. “I had almost given up hope when I saw a big, big window. It was a beauty parlor. I was very surprised when the nice lady who owned the place said, ‘yes,’ they would put her in the window.”
While the beauty parlor, Meneese’s Expertise Beauty Salon, agreed to give the statue a home, the owner asked that Sr. Charity replace the existing glass in the window with stronger glass and also install a spotlight which she did at a cost of about $475.
According to Sr. Charity, for several years Our Lady of the Street looked out over the 27th Street neighborhood, just north of Wisconsin Avenue.
“The (beauty salon owner) said it really made a difference in the neighborhood,” said Sr. Charity. “People would stop to make the sign of the cross or bow or pray. No one ever showed disrespect.”
In a note thanking those who supported her in the “Our Lady of the Street” project, Sr. Charity wrote that she hopes the statue brings hope to those who see it. “I pray that in beholding their heavenly mother, they may be reminded of their heavenly home and that God will touch their hearts.”
After several years, however, a fire at the salon left Our Lady of the Streets homeless herself.
The owner of the salon rescued the statue from the fire and wrapped her in blankets, but she no longer had a place to display the statue of the virgin.
Sr. Charity retrieved the statue and found her a new home on the south side of Milwaukee, again in a troubled neighborhood – this time in a gift shop run by St. Anthony Parish on Ninth and Mitchell streets.
Once again, Our Lady of the Street watched over a neighborhood, looking out for the poor, troubled and downtrodden.
But after a few years, Sr. Charity received another call. The parish was closing the store and Our Lady of the Street was homeless again.
“I started making phone calls and called St. Adalbert Parish and somebody answered and said they’d love to have her,” said Sr. Charity of a phone call she placed about two years ago.
A friend with a truck picked the statue up from St. Anthony and took her to St. Adalbert, also on Milwaukee’s south side.
It was another year before Sr. Charity herself could go visit Our Lady of the Street in her new home, but when she did, she was baffled. No one at St. Adalbert knew anything about her, said Sr. Charity.
“They looked all over and couldn’t find her. There was no record of anybody donating a Blessed Mother statue,” she said.
In the year or so that has followed, several of Sr. Charity’s friends have tried to help her find the statue, but to no avail.
Erato’s daughter, Annmarie, drove Sr. Charity around looking for it. However, it remains lost.
“Where is she?” asked Sr. Charity. “Where is Our Lady of the Street? Is she out there wandering around looking for a home just as she was that first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem long ago? Where is she?”
Jokingly, Sr. Charity said she wishes she had $1,000 to offer as a reward for anyone who can find Our Lady of the Street, but instead said a more valuable reward is certain: “Jesus’ special blessing will be theirs if they can find his mother.”