St. Armands nun responds to accusations by merchants

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SARASOTA, Fla. – In a follow-up to a story we brought you Tuesday, we have identified the mystery woman dressed as a nun who has been soliciting donations on St. Armands Circle.

For months, business owners have expressed their concern about her handwritten signage, question if she is within code, and fear it will set a precedent. More recently, they have questioned her affiliation and where the money is going.

She goes by the name Sister C. -- short for Sister Chidebere Onyewchu – and Wednesday she gave us a tour of her home, which is also the headquarters for her non-profit she says is raising funds to support children and families in Nigeria.

Although she is not recognized by any Catholic diocese on the Suncoast, Sister Onyewchi says she is an active Catholic sister, affiliated with her own ministry, Holy Family Missionaries of Mercy, a 501(c)(3) organization. "We're going to be having sisters and priests. Our mission is actually family evangelization."

ABC 7 looked into the organization, which became a non-profit in January 2012.

Their mission is to raise money to build a family resource center in Nigeria, and provide food and clean water for children and families.

But for months now, St. Armands Circle merchants have had issue with her solicitation for charity. "I don't take it personal, because I believe God wants me there and that's why I'm there," says Sister Onyewchu.

She even went to City Hall to apply for a permit, but the city says she isn't breaking any codes. "They asked me to bring the 501(c)(3) for the community. I gave it to them and they looked at it and said ‘sister, you don't need a permit to be there’."

Sister C. showed ABC 7 around her home full of food items she plans to send to Africa, where she grew up. While living there she says she was an active part of the Catholic Church. She lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and was a part of the Good Shepherd Sisters before moving to Sarasota in 2009.

Sister C. also holds a Master’s Degreee in Pastoral Theology from the Rice School of Arcadia. Her goal is to bless others, even though she may not be accepted. “Something new is sometimes frightening to the public. And I'm there to make the world a little better."

She attends St. Martha's Catholic Church in Sarasota, where she met Allison Sneed, who recently offered her trailer to Sister C. to store food and items she plans to send to Africa. "I notice her and I kind of admire her. And a couple of weeks ago she sat right behind us and she was singing so beautifully, so I start talking with her," says Sneed.

Sister C. shared her mission with Allison, who says she felt led to help. "We as Americans are very fortunate, so I figure, you know, I can at least help someone who needs the help."

Since she began fundraising in October, Sister C. says she's raised about $25,000. She says she will continue to fundraise on St. Armands and at Sam's Club because she needs a considerable amount of money to send food and other items to Africa.