DEBBIE BISHOP, WHO HAS Disabling arthritis and lives on a fixed income, hadn't had a haircut in months when she arrived at the Pearly Gates Salon at St. Raphael Social Service Center in Hamilton, Ohio, for her free coiffure. "When I heard a nun was going to cut my hair, I was shocked," she says. "I expected her to act kind of official. But Sister Bonnie made me feel good about myself. And my perm lasted for five months."
Pushing a rolling cart full of beauty supplies, Sister Bonita Veronica Regina Steinlage provides hairstyling, facials, manicures and even pedicures at social centers in the Cincinnati area. "I'm not afraid to step over a body in an alcoholic center," says the 50-year-old Franciscan sister, whose work is funded by contributions. "I give expression to the person's inner beauty when I help them with their outer appearance."
Before she can deal with aesthetics, Sister Bonnie often must delouse hair and treat scalp diseases. "Not only haven't many of these people had a haircut or even a hair wash in a year," she says, "they haven't been physically touched. Being touched by another person makes them feel human."
Born into a large Catholic family in St. Henry, Ohio, Bonnie Steinlage joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in Cincinnati at age 20. For over two decades, she worked as a nursing nun; then, at an Ash Wednesday service in 1986, she recalls, "I heard the words of Matthew 6:17, 'When thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face.' " Interpreting the command as a calling, she enrolled in a cosmetology course and began seeking the city's poor in 1988. "She could make a lot of money cutting hair," says Vernon Ferrier, a local stylist. "She's versatile, quick and creative." But that's not for Sister Bonnie. "My mission," she says, "is to go where the poorest of the poor are. That's where I need to be."
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