At 11 a.m. yesterday, nearly 60 people gathered at University Lutheran Church to commemorate the life and death of a remarkable Cambridge resident, Marie Sullivan.
Sullivan was not a celebrity in the traditional sense. She was a friend and inspiration to many, a pillar of the homeless community and a constant presence in Harvard Square for the last 15 years.
Friends spoke and sang of Sullivan's role in their lives.
"For me, she'll always be there, telling silly jokes, making me laugh," said one soft-spoken woman over the clank and whine of the church heaters.
Some friends remembered how well-read and wise she was, the wonderful conversations they shared about world events, politics, and life.
Others just remembered her as their best friend.
"I gave her resentment, she gave me love. I gave her anger, she gave me understanding," said Arthur J. Watson, a former client of the shelter.
Former Director of the University Lutheran Shelter Katya E. Fels '93 calls the failure of existing social services to aid people like Sullivan "the eternal question of homelessness."
According to Fels, the current shelter system perpetuates homelessness for many people. Emergency shelters, the most common type, only allow clients to stay a maximum of three nights. After that, they have to vacate for the following three nights before becoming eligible to return again.
These stop-gap shelters are useful to people who are temporarily between homes, but most homeless people require longer-term solutions, Fels said.
Residential programs are generally restricted to people with serious mental illness or addictions, a system that keeps people who are not ill or addicted on the streets, according to Fels.
Sullivan was not mentally ill, nor was she an addict. Trying to find a meal and a place to spend the night was her full-time job.
The circumstances of her homeless life are hazy, as she was an intensely private person who did not like to talk about herself or complain. She was reluctant to ever ask for help, and in her final days repeatedly refused medical treatment, according to friends and shelter workers.
Few details remain of Marie Sullivan's life.She was headstrong, a devout Catholic, a widow,Irish by birth and the youngest of three siblings.She lived in Harvard Square, and now resides ingrave 112, range 72, of the Cambridge Cemeterywelfare lot. She could have been almost anyone,but her strength of character set her apart inlife and afterword, friends said. "I think whatwas unique about Marie was that she was notbitter...She was a genuinely warm, caring person,"Fels said. "She touched people.