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Minister motivates by example

The Rev. Maria Pierre struggled with poverty, criticism and family issues before finding success as a religious leader and social worker all-in-one.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


LAKE MAGDALENE -- When organizers of Hillsborough County's Turnaround Achievement Awards needed an inspirational guest speaker to talk to children, they called the Rev. Maria Pierre.

Mrs. Pierre is living proof that anyone can succeed.

She's an independent minister who provides counseling, funerals, baby blessings and weddings, sometimes in the scenic backyard of her 3,500-square-foot home on Lake Newell.

"Most of my clients are wealthy," Mrs. Pierre said. "But they still have the same feelings of chaos. They are confused, isolated, depressed and criticized. And I can identify with that."

Mrs. Pierre, 40, lives on Leisure Drive with her husband, Teddy, 40, and their daughters Francesca, 12, and Fernanda, 10.

Her lifestyle today is a far cry from her childhood.

Born in Puerto Rico, she left the island at age 7 with her mother and nine siblings.

Although poor, her high grades and test scores got her into a scholarship program for minority students called A Better Chance. It allowed her to get a free prep school education at New Jersey's prestigious Moorestown Friends School.

From there, Mrs. Pierre earned another full academic scholarship to Harvard University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology.

"Her story speaks to the power of education and the internal fortitude necessary to rise above the circumstances life hands you," said Ann Chatfield, supervisor of the Hillsborough School District's reading and dropout prevention program.

Chatfield asked Mrs. Pierre to speak at the 16th annual Turnaround Achievement Awards ceremony in April, honoring middle school students who overcame obstacles to achieve academic success.

Many of the students could relate to Mrs. Pierre's childhood experience.

Her mother, who lived on welfare, died while Mrs. Pierre was a teenager. Her sisters, who lived with her while she attended prep school, criticized her for "becoming white and being a snob."

"The pressure pushed me," she said. "Because if I wasn't going to be part of their family, I had to find my own place in the world, and it wasn't going to be in a factory."

She said the hardest part of her Harvard experience had little to do with the academic challenges. Her freshman year at the Ivy League university was the most isolated time of her life.

"I didn't fit in with the students from really wealthy and connected families, and I no longer fit in with my family," Mrs. Pierre said.

To earn money, she cleaned toilets on campus. It paid more than other jobs, but had the worse working conditions. "I cleaned my classmates' throw-up," she said. "I hated it."

Nevertheless, she earned a degree and she met her husband, a psychology major, at Harvard.

After a short banking career, Mrs. Pierre worked at various social agencies for 10 years. She worked as a community crisis intervention counselor and did stints in drug and alcohol treatment.

She found her true calling in 1999 when she graduated from New Seminary of United Kingdom in London.

"I discovered I am a natural motivator," she said. "It comes easily. The ministry is similar to counseling except your focus is on the spiritual field rather than psychological."

"My greatest job satisfaction is watching people find happiness right before my eyes. People (come to me) despondent and in despair. I help them look at things differently and with their own inner resources, they find their joy."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at grant@sptimes.com.

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