Remembering Lois Cross, who gave richly to the poor

Lois Cross died the same week that Pope Francis made saints out of two former popes, which is fitting in a way.

She wasn't a pope. She didn't perform any miracles. She just did things – little, routine things – to help the downtrodden and destitute.

"She was a saint – our saint," said Sean Cononie.

Cross could have retired comfortably after a career with AT&T, but instead she threw herself into the grimy, chaotic world of Cononie's homeless shelter in Hollywood. For 14 years, she wouldn't give up on people who sometimes had given up on themselves. After a while, all those little things turned into a grand sweeping gesture– a lesson in selflessness and generosity of spirit that can only be described as holy.


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For the late Johnny McCormick, Cross would make a tuna or egg salad sandwich every day, cut in half just the way he liked, to go along with his can of Ensure. For shelter residents celebrating birthdays, she'd buy the monthly communal cake. For Joan Stunkel, an ailing older woman, Cross gave morning car rides to church.

When Cross was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she refused to leave town for specialized treatment, Cononie said, because that would mean abandoning the people who depended on her. People at the shelter whom she took to doctor's appointments. And people like Stunkel, who lives at a Hollywood nursing home and is also battling cancer.

"She gave me hats when my hair fell out from chemo," Stunkel, said Friday outside Little Flower Catholic Church in Hollywood. "She bought me clothes…She was just a giving person. And she accepted you for what you were."

It explains why shelter residents lined up along Federal Highway Friday morning, waving American flags, as the silver hearse carrying Cross's coffin made its way to Little Flower for a funeral Mass.

"That was beautiful," Cross' daughter, Catherine Yeates-Krzeminski, said after she saw the tribute.

"We just wanted to do something to say, 'Thank you Lois,' " said Kelly Mazon-Perez, a shelter resident for the last 15 months. "She helped Sean open this place. If it wasn't for them, we'd be on the streets, living under bridges. Or dead."

Mazon-Perez showed me vein damage and the scar from a near-fatal abscess on her left arm, remnants of a 30-year heroin habit that she said she kicked when she entered the shelter.

"Sean and Lois could have spent their time and money anywhere – instead they're helping us," said Mazon-Perez. "A lot of people in the neighborhood don't like this place, but it saves lives."

In his homily on Friday, Rev. Tom O'Dwyer said, "Some of you saw the canonizations last Sunday. A lot of the commentators said Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul, showed us how to live and how to die. Well, let me tell you something, so did Lois Ann Cross."

He went on to call Cross "the Mother Teresa in our Little Flower community."

Cross' involvement with the shelter came after reading a 1999 Sun Sentinel story about Cononie and McCormick, a chronically homeless drug abuser. She sent Cononie a check. He called to thank her.

Cross came in to meet him.

"The first thing we did was go looking for Johnny, because he went missing," Cononie recalled. She got hooked on helping, spending nearly all her time at the shelter.

Cononie takes in people who don't follow rules at traditional shelters, the ones that halfway houses and treatment centers don't want. His methods are controversial, including deploying an army of hawkers on South Florida street corners to sell The Homeless Voice newspaper. (Sales were suspended for three days after Cross' death, shelter residents said, "out of respect.")

Cross bonded with Cononie, becoming his office manager, bookkeeper and right-hand woman. When the shelter moved into bigger quarters at a former motel in 2002, she often slept on the floor of the cramped office she and Cononie shared. I first met her a decade ago, when she exuded a radiant calm amidst Cononie's frantic mood swings. After hearing her story, I always meant to do a column on her.

Our world is poorer without her.

Lois Cross was 73.

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508.

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