Sister Chidiebere Onyewuchi estimates she has raised approximately $25,000 since October, when she began setting up her chair, card table, cooler and homemade signage on St. Armands Circle.
A slow day might yield $120; the busiest days, up to $800 for her 501(c)(3) charity, Holy Family Missionaries of Mercy, holyfamilymissionariesofmercy.org, which incorporated in January 2012, according to state records.
Here’s where the money goes, according to Onyewuchi, who goes by “Sister C.”:
The organization recently completed a water bore project to provide clean drinking water to families in the villages of Okwu Ikeduru, Imo, Nigeria and has plans for other water bores in Africa. Late last year, the charity purchased a property there, where it will eventually build a soup kitchen, food pantry and family resource center.
One of her handwritten signs reads:
“Please help us take care of sick and hungry children with their families.”
Her Sarasota home is cluttered from floor to ceiling with clothing, food and toys that she plans to ship to Nigeria in October.
Onyewuchi’s presence on the Circle has riled many Circle merchants since she began collecting donations.
Business owners have complained that they would face fines from the city of Sarasota if they made a homemade sign for their store windows or placed a sandwich board outside their store. They worry that if more solicitors and panhandlers frequent the shopping district, it could hurt the Circle’s brand. Some have questioned how funds are used and said she is aggressive in seeking donations.
Onyewuchi, 49, she has been called both a scammer and a “bad woman” during her time on the Circle.
One woman told her, “You don’t belong here.”
She says her response is always the same: “God bless you.”
More important to her are the people who express support for her mission — like a woman who, around Christmas time, thanked her for being there and handed her three crisp $100 bills.
She doesn’t take criticism personally.
“Sometimes something new is threatening to some people,” Onyewuchi said. “I don’t think it has something to do with me. They may not want me there because I’m representing the poor or because I’m a black woman or because I represent religion…I know why I’m there, and I know who I am.”
Eric Seace, president of the St. Armands Circle Association and owner of Planet, wrote in an email to the Longboat Observer that the issue is not about any one person or organization, but rather, about protecting one of Sarasota’s most important tourist attractions.
“St. Armands Circle has a special Commercial Tourism (CT) designation, specifically designed to allow us to govern our codes and regulations outside of city wide blanket policies. We are interested in keeping our sidewalks clear of exterior signage, merchandise display, clutter, panhandling and solicitation to name a few, in order to allow our visitors comfortable, and safe outdoor shopping and dining. Our organization works with many local charities performing dozens of events coordinated with our organization and the city to help raise money. We intend to modify our code to ensure that anyone, charitable organization or not, cannot simply come to St. Armands and set up shop with no limits to their intentions, physical displays, or duration of their stay,” Seace wrote.
Ethna Lynch, co-owner of Lynches Pub & Grub, said that she has rarely seen Onyewuchi and has never had a problem with her, but worries about the precedent that her soliciting sets on the Circle.
“We try to maintain a certain standard on the Circle,” Lynch said. “If she can do it, what’s to stop every Tom, Dick and Harry from doing it?”
Onyewuchi, who also collects donations at Sam’s Club, said her purpose is to be a blessing to others. Born in Ghana to Nigerian parents and raised in Cote d’Ivoire, she says she knew she wanted to become a nun when she was just 6 or 7 and achieved that goal 14 years ago.
Onyewuchi moved in 2001 from Nigeria to Boston, and then in 2004 to St. Louis, where she was a member of the Good Shepherd Sisters. She moved in 2009 to attend Barry University’s Rice School in Arcadia, where she earned a master’s degree in pastoral theology.
She is not affiliated with any diocese in Florida and felt compelled, instead, to form her own church order.
In 2012, her charity reported no income or assets. Most donations have come since she began setting up on St. Armands late last year.
Onyewuchi said she does not receive a salary from her organization and survives with help from friends and family.
“God takes care of me, so I’m good,” she said. “It’s not a job; it’s a vocation.”