The Rogue Nuns of Operation Breakthrough

(originally published 3/14/19)

This article was adapted from the book Angles with Angles: The Rogue Nuns behind Operation Breakthrough, by Loring Leifer, available at Amazon.com (see link at bottom.) The book follows the evolution of two nuns from pious convent dwellers to colorful crusaders who fearlessly, and sometimes foolishly, took on a bishop, the Catholic diocese, a few politicians, landlords, and even the Internal Revenue Service to keep Operation Breakthrough going. What the sisters started on a whim has now become one of the largest and most respected early childhood learning centers in the country.

On September 8, 1969, two nuns, Sister Berta Sailer and Sister Corita Bussanmas, opened the doors of St. Vincent de Paul’s Convent at 3121 Paseo Ave in Kansas City, Missouri, to four babies and six preschoolers, and only four remaining nuns who taught at St. Vincent’s. The vacant rooms had Sister Berta musing about how to fill them. When one of the single moms with toddlers complained that not having a safe place to leave them kept her from getting a job, Sister Berta said to Sister Corita, “We have this big empty convent. Let’s turn it into a daycare.”

The time between idea and action was only three days.

“When Berta gets an idea, we do it. Thinking comes afterward,” Sr. Corita said.

The dynamics of their relationship had been set when they met in 1958 after the worst school fire in the United States, at Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels. The fire killed 92 children and three nuns. Sisters Berta and Corita, coming as teachers to replace those lost, would also console the parish families.

Although trained teachers, they had little experience with the grief and trauma the fire caused, especially because lives could have been saved but for poor school policies. Sister Berta vowed she would never follow a rule that might put a child in harm’s way, and she would do whatever it took—legal or otherwise—to keep children safe.

Lacking both support from their order for the program and any knowledge at all about daycare operations, Sisters Berta and Corita often learned the ropes by getting caught in them. Shortly after the daycare opened, a woman from the city came by asking to see their license. “License?” said Sister Berta. “You need a license to take care of toddlers?” The sisters’ church affiliation enabled them to get a license, but they did not inform their BVM order. Said Sister Berta, “Nobody ever asked us, and we followed a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

At night, the sisters painted classrooms, patched plaster, and cooked up ways to keep the kids comfortable and entertained. As enrollment grew, the nuns took over more of the convent, even tearing up a chapel. When the convent was full, the sisters moved into a nearby home. They learned how to use a jackhammer and built a playground for the kids.

When the diocese notified St. Vincent’s that it would no longer support the school or the daycare, the sisters told the Bishop, “We’ll raise our own money and keep the school open.” Sister Berta assured him they had plenty of money to run the center on their own – knowing there was only $200 in the bank.

The mission of the nuns attracted young idealists committed to making the world a better place. Hippies, conscientious objectors, and urban activists flocked to St. Vincent’s. they coached sports teams, taught subjects that interested them, and sparked a love of learning in the students. The convent’s attic became their dormitory. Discipline problems vanished. Attendance increased. Word spread about a school where students didn’t want to skip class. Increasingly, St. Vincent’s was viewed as a community center too, where children could come before and after school. An attorney from the Legal Aid Foundation helped OB incorporate as a nonprofit. On August 15, 1971, Operation Breakthrough was now official.

The daycare’s new tax status helped expanded funding options. The center won money from the city and from the federal Model Cities program. But it wasn’t enough. “Let’s run the gas station on the corner to raise money,” said Sister Berta. “It would be an opportunity for the kids to learn more business skills.” All the staff, including the sisters, along with the seventh- and eight-grade students, learned to pump gas, check oil and wash windshields. The students also kept the books, and learned about business.

Two days before Thanksgiving in 1976, the sisters arrived to find all the school and rectory doors padlocked. One year earlier, the diocese had granted a lease to a third party, who then raised the sisters’ rent by nearly three times. Now, the eviction had been executed. They were on the street for two days. On Thanksgiving, the nuns struck a deal on a former Federal Aviation Administration building.

With no furniture or supplies, the sisters spent their evenings at their new building, getting ready for inspection as best they could. They used duct tape to mark off “classrooms” and a track around the room’s perimeter as a space to play. While the center was rapidly growing, rising utility bills soon strained resources. Unable to pay the bills, the sisters had to be resourceful. When the center couldn’t pay the trash removal provider, Sisters Berta and Corita drove around Kansas City adding an OB trash bag here and there to other people’s bins. Then, in 1981, their landlord refused to renew the lease.

It wasn’t long, though, when the sisters found a building for sale for $180,000 at 3039 Troost. A tree poked through the roof and garbage and graffiti were everywhere. But Sister Berta saw potential. They secured a private loan of $30,000 from the parents of a former teacher. Sister Berta approached the city for some operating funds, but after the city spent $10,000 on a consultant to determine if )B would survive (the answer was “no”), they were turned down. “I would have told him that for free,” Sister Berta quipped.

When the doors on Troost opened six months later, for the first time in its life Operation Breakthrough controlled its own destiny under one – leaky – roof. But keeping up with expenses remained a challenge, and by 1986, the center was broke. The sisters closed the elementary school, but that wasn’t enough. When Sister Corita told the staff the center would have to shut down, several teachers burst into tears. The next day, Helen Gragg, a teacher, handed Sister Corita an envelope with a check for $30,000. Helen had taken out a second mortgage on her home. “You can’t do this for us,” Sister Corita said. “But you can do it for the children.”

Helen’s selfless act ushered in a new era, as an ever-wider net of people stepped forward to help. The good fortune seemed to replicate itself. This fortune has taken the center beyond what two nuns could have imagined when they first opened the convent doors fifty years ago. Although health issues forced the sisters to give up running OB a few years ago, their mission to help families overcome the handicap of being born into poverty continues to inspire others.

(Photo: (l-r) Sister Corita Bussanmas and Sister Berta Sailer, circa 1969. Photo courtesy of Operation Breakthrough.)

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About the author of Angles With Angles: The Rogue Nuns of Operation Breakthrough

Loring Leifer helps businesses and individuals tell their stories. A former design editor of Interiors magazine, she has written countless articles and several books, such as Information Anxiety; Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Drugs: Prescription, Non-Prescription, and Herbal; Who’s Really Who? The 1000 most creative individuals in the USA; Younger Voices, Stronger Choices. Her most recent book, Angles with Angles: The Rogue Nuns behind Operation Breakthrough, won the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence.

Angels with Angles: The Rogue Nuns behind Operation Breakthrough

(Leifer@WordsWorthCo.com)

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