Sisters on a Mission

The Medical Mission Sisters Thrift Shop in Fox Chase has funded international outreach efforts since 1976.

Shop with a purpose: All sales from the Medical Mission Sisters thrift shop, at 8400 Pine Road in Fox Chase, are donated to those in need around the world. At the heart of the thrift shop are the nuns who work there, many of whom are in their 80s. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

For more than 40 years, the Medical Mission Sisters have operated a thrift shop tucked away in bucolic woods off Pine Road in Fox Chase.

It may be difficult to see from the road, but the shop’s influence spreads around the world. Sales at the store help fund the healthcare the Medical Mission Sisters provide in poor countries, as well as projects closer to home — including an addiction recovery community in North Philadelphia.

The two-floor thrift shop sells a wide assortment of items. There’s clothing, shoes, household items, videos, books, furniture and no shortage of knick-knacks. Everything on the shelves is donated.

At the heart of the shop are the nuns who work there, many of whom are in their 80s. Almost all of them have spent years overseas, and now, as a “retirement job,” they are running the store.

Sister Elona Stanchak returned to the United States about eight years ago after spending 50 years as a nurse and administrator in a 225-bed hospital in Pakistan. On a recent weekday, she was in a back room on the shop’s second floor working on linens.

“We meet a lot of nice people, and I think we serve a purpose for those who can’t afford to buy elsewhere,” Stanchak said.

A lifetime of service: Almost all of the nuns at the Medical Mission Sisters thrift shop have spent years overseas, and now, as a “retirement job,” they are running the store. Above, Sister Elona Stanchak spent 50 years serving as a nurse and administrator in a hospital in Pakistan before returning to the United States. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Several of the sisters said they had never worked in retail before coming to the store. Most had been nurses, midwives or performed other medical tasks.

Sister Jane Fell traveled the world with the Medical Mission Sisters helping those in need. Her many stops include Afghanistan, Uganda and Ghana.

Fell, who staffs the cash register, said her job now is to meet about 50 customers a day. Cashiering is part of the work but so is starting conversations and getting to know people, she said.

“My ministry now is serving and sharing,” Fell said.

Part of the lure of the shop is the “treasure hunt” experience, staff said. Customers may browse the packed rooms for an hour or more looking for something that catches their eye.

Others come simply for a friendly face and jovial conversation.

JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTOS

The Medical Mission Sisters have owned the sprawling property on Pine Road since 1939, according to Sister Joan Foley, the outgoing director of the thrift shop. It serves as the order’s North American headquarters and also includes a retreat area and Mission Green, a complex of affordable apartments for people over 55.

Foley said about 50 sisters also live on the property.

The building that houses the thrift shop also has a rather interesting history. In the Prohibition Era, it was known as “the boathouse” and served as a nightclub, Foley said. It was on the edge of a since filled-in lake.

Of course, that activity ceased when the Medical Mission Sisters purchased the property. However, Foley said she remembers going there for vacation with the other sisters while the lake was still around.

The thrift shop opened in 1976, and the big doors where the boats would pull in are still visible today. The lake was located where the parking lot is now.

Left: An old photograph shows a sister in a boat outside the property that now houses the thrift shop. On the right side is what the thrift shop looks like today. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTOS

In addition to funding the Medical Mission Sisters’ international efforts, the thrift shop also makes an effort to help out the local community.

Store manager Marilyn Reyes said St. Cecilia’s parish and Birthright, a crisis pregnancy center on Oxford Avenue, sometimes refer people in need to the store for clothing and other items, which the shop provides for free. The shop is also partnered with New Jerusalem Now, a drug recovery program run by the Medical Mission Sisters at 20th and Norris streets.

The thrift shop, located at 8400 Pine Road, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Foley said the sisters are looking for volunteers to help out at the store, and donations are always welcome. For more information, call 215–745–7930 or visit www.mmsthriftshop.org. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com