Meet The Nun Who Took On a Gang-Ridden Neighborhood and Made It Livable

J.K. Dineen, Feb 26, 2023

When the owners of the Hanky Panky Gentlemen’s Club closed their San Mateo establishment a few years ago, their first call was to an unlikely neighbor: a red-haired nun named Sister Christina Heltsley.

By any chance, they wondered, would the Sister be interested in buying the Hanky Panky?

While Dominican nuns are not generally in the business of acquiring nightclubs, the inquiry made sense to those who know Sister Christina.

To step into the St. Francis Center – a block from the old Hanky Panky – is to enter into a wood and plaster manifestation of Heltsley’s vision for what a thriving, low-income immigrant neighborhood could be.

On the ground floor, volunteers sort bags of clothes – they “rehome” about 35,000 bags a year – while a crew in the food pantry assembles boxes of produce, dairy, meat and canned goods. The facility also has a shower and washer-dryer setup for unhoused neighbors.

Upstairs is home to the Holy Name School, a K-8 school which serves two classes of 16 at a time. For instance, this year, there is a kindergarten class and a sixth grade class. While the families – mostly immigrants from Mexico – do not pay any tuition, at least one parent is required to spend one day a week at the St. Francis Center, where they receive English tutoring from volunteers.

If the upstairs feels like a well-appointed home in Atherton – with oriental carpets, antiques, wide-plank oak floors and well-mannered dogs named Tinsley and Grace – it’s because that is how Heltsley wanted it.

“We try to make it homey. Even the dogs are purposeful. They roam in and out of the classroom and the kids can de-stress with them,” she said.

“One of the gang members said, ‘We don’t call the police in this neighborhood, ” she recalled. “I said I do. “

San Mateo Sheriff Christina Corpus, who spent years working as a community officer in North Fair Oaks, met Sister Christina in 2008. “Everyone calls her ‘Sister Saint, ” Corpus said. “She has tenacity, grit and a lot of compassion for the community.”

Corpus and Heltsley worked together to establish a satellite sheriff’s office in the youth center, in order to make kids more comfortable with law enforcement.

“We had a lot of violence in that neighborhood, a lot of drug trafficking. She has really transformed that community to feel more like a neighborhood where kids are comfortable playing outside.”

In the world of affordable housing, the St. Francis Center is unique in that it doesn’t use public money or tax credits.

“Government funding slows everything down – I don’t have the time,” Heltsley said. “The need is so great we need to act nimbly. We need to be able to take down a property, rehab it and turn it into low-income housing.”

Instead, Heltsley has cultivated a community of passionate supporters that include some of the Peninsula’s wealthiest families, including billionaire real estate developers John and Sue Sobrato; philanthropists and former San Francisco Giants owners Bob and Connie Lure; and Ned Spieker, founder of Spieker Properties, one of the largest commercial real estate owners in the U.S.

“I could never ask for money for myself – I would die of embarrassment – but I have no qualms about asking for this community, because the need is real,” Heltsley said.

Unlike large nonprofits or housing developers with thousands of units, the St. Francis Center is geographically focused and its impact is clear to anyone who walks around North Fair Oaks.

“Donors can see their money in action,” Heltsley said. “And they know this middle-class girl does not waste a cent.”

The whole family approach has transformed the life of Lulu Barajas, who arrived in North Fair Oaks at age 17 from Michoacan, a state in western Mexico that many North Fair Oaks residents have immigrated from.

She learned English at the St. Francis Center while her kids were in school there and her kids – like almost all the graduates of Holy Name – end up with full scholarships to Catholic high schools on the Peninsula. One of her kids graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in psychology. The middle one is at Sacred Heart Prep and the youngest is still at Holy Name.

Barajas is now a property manager for the nonprofit, overseeing 50 units, and studying early childhood development at Cañada College.

“Sister Christina is part of my family – she basically raised me,” said Barajas. “She always says I’m her crazy adopted daughter.”

Everyone has a story about how they met Sister Christina.

Bill Butler, CEO of W.L. Butler Construction, said he met her at the posh Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club in Menlo Park. Heltsley was having lunch with U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo as well as another friend and, before he knew it, the nun had persuaded him to become St. Francis Center’s general contractor.

“She is like a whale fisherman. She drags you in. She is a heck of a nun,” Butler said. “She just drives around this community and when she sees a dumpy old building, she finds out who owns it and sees if they will donate it.

Usually they won’t, so she’ll start dialing people up.”

Philanthropist Connie Lurie said she met Heltsley at the request of Atherton Police Chief Steven McCulley. “The chief said, ‘I want you to go over and meet sister Christina, ” Lurie recalled. “I said, ‘First of all I don’t live in Redwood City and, second of all, I’m not Catholic. Why do I have to go over and meet her?’ He said, ‘Just go. “

Lurie said she was taken with the St. Francis Center’s holistic approach: the community gardens, the youth center, the fact that parents are also required to be students.

“Nobody else does that,” Lurie said. “She is just so creative and thoughtful.”

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