National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Pro-Life Profile Looking After the Least of Her Brothers

Ruthanne Donahue, foster mother and caretaker of souls, opens her Indiana home to all in need

BY William Murray

February 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/15/98 at 1:00 PM


Ruthanne Donahue of Osceola, Ind., lives detachment and poverty better than many religious, according to one priest.

“She takes the ones that no one wants,” said Father Eldon Miller, pastor of Queen of Peace Church in Mishawaka, Ind., where Donohue is a parishioner.

Donahue is the biological mother of three grown children, but her motherhood hasn't ended there. She has adopted six special-needs children and is the foster mother of four more, according to her son Jim Donahue of Cambridge, Mass. Two children are blind, three have cerebral palsy, and one has Down syndrome.

When there is no room at the homeless shelter in nearby South Bend, she lets residents stay at her house. She also works with Catholic Charities, a shelter for battered women, a local crisis pregnancy center, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army to offer shelter to the unfortunate in her 15-room house.

“She never says ‘no’ to anyone,” Jim Donahue, an MIT graduate and a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Harvard told the Register, explaining how that trait is both a strength and a weakness. (“Her three children are brilliant and extremely intelligent. They are probably as religiously committed as she is,” said Father Miller.)

As many as 140 families have lived in the house through the years, and there are usually 25-30 people living there at a time, according to Jim Donohue. Up to 45 people have stayed in the house. During one twoweek period every bed was filled and people slept on the floors in the hallways.

Father Miller, who became a priest in 1954, has known the 54-year-old Donahue since she was in third grade and describes her as “a close friend.” When the priest recently asked her if she was concerned that people might take advantage of her, Donahue told him, “I have 15 rooms. I can take care of that many people.”

“I'v e had a lot of situations where I thought ‘this is too much,’ she said. “But I always said ‘yes,’ because I didn't want to turn anyone away—and the person always found help or didn't come back.” Occasionally though, when someone cannot break out of a pattern of substance abuse, Donahue has had to turn them away.

She first became a foster mother in 1967, when an 8-year-old boy was abandoned by his parents after they left him in her care. Her husband didn't share her passion for helping people in need and the two were divorced early in their marriage.

“She is very prayerful and detached from material things,” said Father Miller, adding that Donahue has a “strong Catholic faith and lives the Gospel.”

Finances have long been touch and go for Donahue. She does not have a checking account, certain that God will provide for her financial needs. In 1992, a boarder stole Donahue's life savings, and since then, she has had to rely on God even more intensely, especially for unexpected needs, such as funerals and medical expenses, or to make charitable contributions, she said. Since she has always worked from her home, she does not qualify for Social Security benefits.

Still, Donahue lives debt-free and has put three additions onto her house. She has had a steady flow of income from the state due to her foster care.

Because Donahue has opened her heart and her home to children, other people have opened themselves to her. Parishioners at Queen of Peace give money to her through the parish, according to Father Miller.

Her boarders are an interesting mix. They include a 74-year-old woman who asked Donahue if she could live in her house after having been in a nursing home.

“She cusses like a sailor,” said Donahue. “She must weigh 60 pounds.”

Another resident, a young woman, is studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church with Father Edward O'C onnor, a Holy Cross priest from the University of Notre Dame, in order to make up for deficient religious formation.

Donahue claims she does nothing to attract Catholics, but said that “95% of the families coming here are fallenaway Catholics.”

Father O'C onnor, who has served as Donahue's spiritual director since her husband left her, often celebrates Mass in the house Saturday afternoons. The celebrations offer an in to those wanting to return to the Church, Donahue said.

She may never say “no” to someone in need, but the State of Indiana does not allow parents of 10 or more children to become foster parents, so Donahue allowed her foster home license to lapse. For the past seven years she has become more involved as a shepherding home for women in crisis pregnancies.

A man who came to Donahue with Father O'C onnor's recommendation, Jeff Swank, has served as a full-time assistant and a father figure in the Donahue house during the past seven years, Father Miller said.

“He helps take care of things,” the priest said, including repairs and homework with the children.

Of the 39-year-old man who has sacrificed his work as a carpenter to help, Donahue said, “He's not too proud to do whatever I ask of him.”

Though it's unlikely that the world would judge her a success, Donahue keeps a proper perspective by reminding herself from time to time of Mother Teresa's motto: “We'r e called to be faithful, not successful.”

William Murray writes from Kensington, Md.