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On Wheels and a Prayer

With a trusty bicycle and a bounty of faith, Sister Alice Marie Quinn runs one of the country's largest privately funded meals program for shut-ins.


It's daybreak, and the Catholic nun, with her white habit tucked beneath her and bike helmet snapped in place atop her veil, is riding along Santa Monica beach while amused beachgoers yell, "The nun is back!" That's her again, sun barely risen, bicycling in Hancock Park and wishing a "good morning" to joggers and dog owners who smile and shake their heads in disbelief.

On the Lord's day, it gets even better. Sister Alice Marie Quinn, the 66-year-old founder of one of the largest privately funded Meals on Wheels program in the nation, takes to biking down St. Vincent Medical Center's bland hallways, her white robe blending in with the walls as the blue bike streaks by. This is the nun former Mayor Richard Riordan once called "L.A.'s Mother Teresa," the same Daughters of Charity nun that television viewers have been seeing in the poignant "I'm an American" ads launched in late September.

"It's a witness that nuns are normal," says Sister Alice Marie about her decision to always wear her habit, even when she's exercising. "It's not me, Sister Alice Marie, that people see. It's a nun. I think maybe they will think about God. I am who I am, and this is what we're all about."

To be sure, Sister Alice Marie--whose nickname is Sam--never loses sight of the vocation she discovered at 19 when she was in nursing school and one of the teaching sisters took her to visit poor people in El Paso. She vowed then to devote herself to the needy, a promise she has kept for nearly 25 years at St. Vincent in Los Angeles.

The Meals on Wheels program, under the auspices of the hospital, has served almost 12 million meals to L.A.'s poorest residents: homebound senior citizens, disabled and terminally ill patients, homeless adults and children. Every day, 98 employees and 100 volunteers prepare and deliver 2,500 meals (1,600 hot and 900 cold), driving 600 miles through some of the city's grittiest downtown, South-Central and Hollywood neighborhoods.

"This is God's program; it's not mine," she says, sitting in her cramped but very organized office in a St. Vincent annex near downtown Los Angeles. "If you trust your worries to him, he will take care of you. I told God that if he gets us the money, I'll do the work. I love the work, and he does see that the money comes through."

It's a hard position to dispute, considering that in 1989, Meals on Wheels owed the hospital, which underwrites the program, $564,000. The board told her that she could not accept more clients until the debt was repaid. Sister Alice Marie argued with them, troubled by the notion that hungry people would go unfed.

"God will take care of us," she assured the board and then went home to pray. The next day, a lawyer called her with the news that a Glendale woman had bequeathed the sale of her estate to the program. A check for $566,000 was in the mail. Two years later, when a dishwasher broke, Sister Alice Marie bought a heavy-duty one for $6,000, fully aware that she did not have the money to pay for it. The next morning, she bought a bingo game card at Ralph's and hit the jackpot: a choice of $5,000 in cash or a trip to Australia for two.

"God sent us that money," she says matter-of-factly. "People asked me if he sent me the money, why didn't he send all of it? I told them that God doesn't pay taxes and installation fees. It was a miracle. Nobody wanted to talk to me that morning," she says.

"It's weird and scary to know that God is always so close. So you have to be really good. I try to be really good. It's not easy for me." Mischief has always commanded Sister Alice Marie's personality. She still gets a kick from childhood stories of her tomboy days when she competed with her four siblings for attention and got caught in a bayou's quicksand; when she broke her leg; or when she fell into a construction ditch. A self-proclaimed Daddy's little girl who never got along with her strict mother, Sister Alice Marie grew up wondering if her mother was right: that she was destined to fail.

"I always was in trouble," she says and laughs. "When my mom told me not to do something, that's the first thing I'd do. But if you think about it, it's served me well. I don't go through all the hoops they'd like me to go through around here. Things just take too long that way. I figure it's a lot easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission."

As the program's executive director, Sister Alice Marie manages a $5.2-million budget with ease but has no five-year plan because "God never tells me what he wants that far in advance." The nonprofit program is funded entirely through donations.

Skilled at pep talks and raising money, she is more comfortable in the kitchen, crafting menus and supervising the ultra-efficient assembly line of trays. She offers the only meals program in the city with meals tailored to the dietary needs and wants of every client--and no waiting list.

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