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Founder Sister Grace Miller struggles with leadership change at House of Mercy

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Alex Crichton
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WXXI News
FILE PHOTO: Sister Grace Miller, founder of the House of Mercy

The House of Mercy said Friday that it has a new executive director, and the organization's founder said it’s breaking her heart.

"I feel devastated the way this whole thing happened," Sister Grace Miller said. "They've taken the life right out of me."

Tammy Butler, who has extensive experience in human services and behavioral health and most recently served as a program director at Coordinated Care Services, has been named the new director.

House of Mercy’s board of directors said the appointment follows a one-year search, but Miller said she was blindsided by the announcement that she will no longer lead the organization she founded 37 years ago.

"If you want someone to come work with me, alongside me, fine," Miller said. "But to just push me out, like 'You don't belong here anymore. We got somebody better,' that's how they're making me feel."

Miller was inspired to establish the nonprofit after she spent a cold winter night in 1985 unsuccessfully trying to find shelter for three homeless men in Rochester.

She purchased a single-family house on Central Park for the House of Mercy's first shelter. A few years later, a move was made to a larger home on Hudson Avenue and then in 2018, the current shelter opened on Ormond Street to accommodate even more people.

The House of Mercy’s initial budget was $300,000. Today, it’s $2.4 million.

"We are serving more people than any other homeless shelter in Rochester, and that's a direct credit to Sister Grace,” said the board president, Ed Hourihan.

Hourihan takes issue with the notion that Miller is being replaced.

“Everyone knows Sister Grace is irreplaceable,” he said.

Miller has been asked to stay on as the organization’s spiritual director, which she said she will do.

Tammy Butler profile photo
Photo provided
Tammy Butler, the House of Mercy's new executive director

But Hourihan said it was time to appoint a leader to handle the administrative duties that come with a growing nonprofit.

"Somebody has to pay the water bill and the light bill and somebody has to evaluate an employee yearly,” he said, adding, “some of the things admittedly Sister Grace will tell you she doesn't really care to do."

Miller said she still has a lot of energy at the age of 86.

"Physically, spiritually, I don't feel ready to leave."

According to Hourihan, Miller is still needed to guide the board through her latest vision to provide permanent housing for once-homeless people. He said the board has encouraged her to find a property for this purpose. Miller has often mentioned the former Cadillac Hotel on Chestnut Street as one possibility.

And as far as Miller’s wish for a more gradual transition in leadership, Hourihan said that is not only possible, but necessary.

"Dr. Butler's very familiar with the population we serve in her background,” he explained, “but as far as learning our true mission, our true colors and what Grace's vision is, they're going to need to work side by side."

Each night, the House of Mercy provides shelter for as many as 82 people. On a monthly basis, the nonprofit serves 9,000 meals and also offers clothing, social services, housing assistance, and medical care to people in need.

Miller is worried that a change in leadership will result in a shift in focus from the House of Mercy’s core mission to business concerns and that restrictions will be placed on who is served.

"We have large numbers coming to us every day,” she said. “They're being evicted; they need rent money. Somebody in their family died, whatever their problems are, those are the things we get involved in."

But Hourihan said he would not be leading the board if he did not value the mission. He said he takes pride in the fact that the House of Mercy accepts into its shelter the poorest of the poor, people who won’t be accepted anywhere else.

“We need to continue to serve those people,” he said. “We need to serve the toughest cases, and we will continue to do that."