Kids in Pope’s Shoes

A homeless woman in Minneapolis needed shoes for her school-age kids. A man in Rome had thousands of pairs to donate. Meet the woman who brought them together.

MINNEAPOLIS — School had just begun, and Ushawnda Wilson’s boys needed new shoes to go with their uniforms. Wilson, who lives at a homeless shelter, was about to ask someone where she could get them.

Then an unusual gift arrived.

Three of Wilson’s four boys were among 100 or so recipients of expensive brand-name Italian shoes as a gift from Pope Benedict XVI.

“They came at a time when they were really needed,” said Wilson. “God was watching out.”

Her 11-year-old son D’Sean had just told her he was tired of wearing tennis shoes to church, United Christian Ministries in Minneapolis.

“I thought it was very nice,” said D’Sean, who says he wears his shoes for church and school. He said that prior to the gift, he hadn’t heard of Pope Benedict.

Said his mother, who works as a telemarketer: “I knew that the Pope gave things to people, but I never thought it would come all the way to Minnesota. Coming when it did, at the beginning of the school year, it really meant something to a lot of people.”

The story of how the shoes ended up Mary’s Place Transitional Center on the outskirts of Minneapolis is one only a “master tailor” could have sewn together.

Last April, while visiting Vigevano — Italy’s shoemaking capital — Pope Benedict XVI was given 15,000 pairs of leather shoes by the city’s shoe manufacturers for his charities.

One month later, two nuns and a priest who work in the Vatican were visiting their friend, Father Joseph Johnson, rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Father Johnson gave his visitors a tour of the Twin Cities.

“I showed them the cathedral,” said Father Johnson. “I wanted to share not just the beauty of the Catholic Church in stone, but also the Church in action bringing love to the poor.”

So, Father Johnson brought them to see the work of his friend Mary Jo Copeland, founder of Minneapolis-based Sharing and Caring Hands. Father Johnson had gotten to know Copeland during his time serving at St. Olaf’s Church in downtown Minneapolis. He also serves as Copeland’s spiritual director.

The Vatican visitors were impressed. Copeland handed them a copy of her 2004 pictorial biography, Saving Body & Soul. The visitors asked for a second copy and asked her to sign it for the Pope.

“I didn’t think much of it,” said Copeland, who expected it to end up on a shelf. “The Pope is a busy man.”

Some time during the summer, Pope Benedict read the book and was inspired to pass on the shoes he’d been given in Vigevano.

“In the book, he saw her caring for people’s feet and giving out shoes,” said Father Johnson. “I had an inkling — from my friends — that the shoes were coming.”

The two large boxes — marked maneggiare con cura (handle with care) — were delayed at customs in Atlanta, but eventually made their way to Minnesota. Father Johnson was there when the boxes were opened Oct. 1.

“There were wonderful black and brown, blue and pink leather shoes,” said Father Johnson, “much nicer shoes than the ones I wear.”

Father Johnson said their first challenge in distributing the shoes was understanding the difference between European and American sizes. They quickly found a conversion chart on the Internet. With that figured out, about 100 pair of mostly children’s shoes were distributed to black, Indian, Hmong and Hispanic families at the shelter, most of whom were not Catholic.

Most of the shoes that were distributed bore the Naturino Falc brand-name, which sells for anywhere between $60 and $100.

“It was like Christmas,” said Father Johnson. “The thought that the Pope himself had a care for them brought tears to the eyes of some of the parents. One person told me, ‘Thank Mr. Pope for us.’”

Named for the Blessed Mother, the creation of Mary’s Place is nothing short of a miracle. Copeland founded it in 1985 after three years at Catholic Charities. She accepts no money from government sources or United Way, yet has raised millions of dollars to support the work.

“There are crucifixes and pictures of Our Lady and the saints everywhere,” said Father Johnson. “She doesn’t want the red tape. She says, ‘I can’t compromise God’s work.’ She doesn’t want the government saying she can’t teach children to pray or telling them that she and God love them.”

Ever since opening, Copeland has always paid particular attention to the feet of the poor, bathing visitor’s feet when they arrive.

“The poor are always on their feet. They don’t take care of their feet,” said Copeland. “I’ve always felt it’s a way of serving Jesus.”

Father Johnson, who has helped Copeland fill soak pans, agreed.

“It’s a Christological symbol of loving service that we recognize,” said Father Johnson. “Yet, it’s also very practical. In cold weather, their feet crack, and in the summer they get moldy.”

The shelter hosts as many as 500 people every evening, at least 400 of them children, and provides more than 4,500 meals each week.

“Normally when we think of homeless shelters we think of grim, serious places,” said Father Johnson. “Mary’s Place is unlike any other in the world — it’s bright, cheery, clean. It’s all about restoring to the poor their dignity as God’s children and our brothers and sisters.”

For Copeland, the spiritual support is as important as the physical and financial assistance. Two years ago, Father Johnson helped Copeland open a Eucharistic chapel at the shelter.

“I teach these people to pray,” said Copeland. “That way they know that they’re never alone.”

Copeland said she was shocked by the donation of shoes. She sent a thank you note to the Holy Father.

“These shoes are beautiful,” Copeland said. “The kids will outgrow the shoes before they wear them out.”

In response, Pope Benedict sent Copeland a letter thanking her and telling her he was praying for her.

Said Copeland: “It’s all just so unbelievable.”

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.