When a yellow school bus chugs over the hill and stops, Sister Rene Procopio is waiting.
She stands by the Mooncrest Community Center’s front door, squinting into the sunny street, as children clamber off their bus and hurtle across the pavement. When they see Sister Rene, they slow down and bow their heads.
As they enter the building, the students receive a squirt of antibacterial gel on their hands. They spread out along their worktables and begin their homework.
Sister Rene is a member of the Felician Sisters of Coraopolis, the order that also operates Nine years ago, she answered an unusual call: to create a hands-on community program for Mooncrest, the struggling neighborhood on the northern tip of Moon Township.
Perched atop a scenic hilltop with a breathtaking view of the Ohio River Valley, the community is home to more than 700 and a neighborhood association that in recent years has worked to improve housing and reverse decline.
Joining that effort were the Felician Sisters, who wanted to start an outreach program in Mooncrest, Sister Rene said. She was its logical founder after spending 12 years as a first-grade teacher and 21 years as a school administrator.
At the time, Sister Rene was recovering from hip surgery. While many patients might have passed their down time by sitting around watching TV, Sister Rene planned an ambitious community project.
And so Mooncrest Neighborhood Programs were born. What began as a modest operation in the local Baptist Church has become a thriving organization.
Labor of love
On any given afternoon, the community center is a flurry of activity.
On the ground floor, every wall is plastered with paintings and collages created by young children.
The worktables are covered with notebooks, drawing pads, pencils and crayons. They are often visited by a “harpsicle therapist,” who helps students use harps for self-expression. Artists come from Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley to lead workshops.
Outside, there’s a basketball court, where students play pick-up games with aspiring athletes. They have taken trips to the Mellon Arena for a circus, to the Cultural District to see the Rockettes, to RMU for basketball games, and to the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks for ceramics and dance classes.
Each week, Sister Renee coordinates six staff members and an average of 50 volunteers. The after-school program serves children in first through sixth grades.
The Mooncrest Neighborhood Program is the culmination of years of slow and steady work – collaborations, field trips, and endless proposals and grant writing.
“That’s why I have all these gray hairs,” Sister Rene quips with a smile.
Sister Rene is a compact woman with smart glasses and silvering dark hair. She grew up in a coal-mining town north of Harrisburg in a family of seven children. She said her childhood was a happy one thanks to her parents’ sacrifices.
When she was a young student, she was inspired by her teachers with the Felician Sisters -- a branch of the Franciscan Order of monks.
“I wanted to be as happy as they were,” Sister Rene recalls. “My father was so proud.”
If you didn’t know she was a nun, by her demeanor you’d likely describe Sister Rene as “motherly.” She dons ordinary clothes and lives in a nearby apartment “so we can identify with the kids.” She knows everything about her after-school students, including their interests, their home lives and the details of their report cards.
A humble beginning
When Jeannette Brill moved to Mooncrest in 1942, it had a main road and a single line of houses. The plan -- now designated a historic area by the state - was built to house workers at defense plants on nearby Neville Island during World War II.
Brill, 85, was among the first people to take up residence in the newly constructed plan, and she has lived in Mooncrest ever since. In the early days, she said, the development was a quaint little suburb, removed from the noise of Pittsburgh and comfortable for young families.
“I just stayed,” Brill says, shrugging her shoulders. “When we moved here, it was beautiful."
Brill, who now is a Mooncrest Neighborhood Programs volunteer and a longtime community worker, said she's watched the neighborhood decline in the decades since she moved there.
Absentee landlords have purchased many properties in the neighborhood and allowed them to fall into disrepair. Residents also are watchful and concerned about crime.
Chief Leo McCarthy said the crime rate in Mooncrest on average is higher than police handle in other township neighborhoods. Typical crimes committed in the neighborhood include drug offenses and thefts, he said.
"There is a slightly elevated crime rate there, but it's not much higher than the township as a whole," McCarthy said. "You know Moon Township is 24 square miles, and if you do a comparision of Mooncrest to the rest of the township, yes, the crime rate is higher."
Sister Rene said she has worked hard to make the community center an instrument that would reinvigorate this community and help it to thrive again.
A center for everyone
The community center is filled with affirmative posters: “Hard Work Makes People Smart” is printed on a banner that hangs from the ceiling.
But the Mooncrest Neighborhood Programs strikes a delicate balance between spiritual and secular life.
Sister Rene's colleague, Sister Mildred, also is a Felician Sister. On this unseasonably warm day, a group of visiting pastors has arrived to tour the center, led by Pastor Sevick, who helped host the program in its earliest days. The children are asked to join in a prayer at the beginning of their work.
“But there is no proselytizing,” says Sister Mildred. The prayer she leads is secular in language and tone in an effort to reach children from all backgrounds, she said.
If all goes as planned, the community center will expand. The rear wall will be pushed back into the yard, giving participants more room for indoor activities. The center forges new partnerships with other community organizations on a regular basis, according to its staff. When teachers at the went on strike for 13 days in November, Sister Rene and her colleagues provided meals for neighborhood children.
“Those teachers didn’t realize these kids were without breakfast and lunch,” Sister Rene said, explaining that many low-income families turn to school-lunch programs to feed their children.
"I feel for these children," Sister Rene said.