Carolyn McNulty's community work is grounded in the earliest days of her childhood when her mother raised 10 children and four grandchildren to be community-minded while her father was working full-time outside the home. Carolyn's mother also acted as "mother" to her suburban community in Saint John, New Brunswick from the late 1940s through the early 1960s when many citizens took care of each other in the absence of adequate health and community services, and times of uncertain employment. Carolyn recalls their participation in the neighbourhood, at church, and in school—"anywhere something was going on, we contributed."
Sharing scarce resources with neighbours was a key principle at home. The popular family rink was open to everyone, and each spring Carolyn's mother would replace the kitchen linoleum because neighbourhood children had run indoors with their skates still attached. She would literally take the roast off the table and give it to another family who needed food, or remove Carolyn's sweater to pass to one of the poorer children. Later, Carolyn would decide not to do this to her own children, while still understanding how she followed her mother's principles:
I would think things through and say, "I know why Mama did that." I was able to accept that her behaviour and intentions were a grace. She used to make me so angry because she would say, "God will provide…"
When she was married and raising her own children, Carolyn became involved with direct help to those in need.
I'm a Roman Catholic by choice and I was in the charismatic prayer community when I started working through the prayer group with families who were in need of food, clothing, or whatever. I learned a lot of the ropes there of how to serve people, and I made a lot of connections.
She began to commute each day to do volunteer work in the Good Shepherd Community, an in-home Christian community fellowship in East Saint John. With spiritual guidance, she considered how she could work closer to her home in West Saint John. As requests for help with food and clothing increased, Carolyn and a few friends found themselves busy gathering, sorting, and dispersing clothing from her house. Her neighbourhood prayer community raised funds to buy food that they gave away from her house, and Carolyn realized that this situation could not continue.
Four months after these home-based services got underway, Carolyn got a call from a food wholesaler who offered a bargain on several pallets of food with damaged packaging—"Are you interested to buy it?" asked the dealer: "Fifty dollars and you have to pick it up." This was the question that Carolyn took as a sign to begin planning a facility and scale of operation that eventually became Romero House in February 1982, named after the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romeo. There would in fact be three locations over the next few years to meet expanding needs.
With the increased demand for packaged food supplies and greater storage space, Carolyn saw the need for space, and also for making her services accessible to the circle of clients who were feeling the effects of the economic slump of the times. The middle class losing their homes, and those living in varying degrees of poverty were suffering from poor nutrition and constant evictions:
A child in a year of school might live in seven different places in one year. No consistency to anything. That's bad for their mental health and everything else.
So Carolyn took some time to think things through, seek spiritual guidance, and wait for her call. To her husband and close friends, Carolyn argued that Saint John needed a soup kitchen to provide regular, free, freshly cooked meals of adequate nutritional quality that were accessible to those in need. Support for her concept was immediate and everyone agreed that the time had come to "walk their talk" and find the funds, location, and building to get underway.