When the subject is Midtown, the City Council can expect to have a habit-wearing nun sitting in the gallery. Even when she doesn't speak up, which is often, Sister Veronica Higgins attends the meetings to support new businesses in Midtown and to petition the council for safety measures for the area and for Villa Teresa Catholic School.
Known as "Sister Veronica," Sister Higgins started at Villa Teresa, operated by the Carmelite Sisters of Saint Therese, in 1973 as a teacher. With the exception of the years 1989-91, when she was at St. Charles Borromeo, the Carmelite nun has been there ever since. She has served as the school's principal for the past six years, overseeing a 90-percent increase in enrollment and working with local businesses to revitalize Midtown.
Greg Banta is an Oklahoma City developer who used to have offices on Classen Drive, just across from Villa Teresa. He was integrally involved in the renaissance in Midtown, and he is a very vocal fan of Sister Higgins.
"When we moved into the neighborhood, she visited the office and introduced herself," Banta said. "She was the first nun I ever met. I'd never had much reason to interface with a nun."
Banta and Sister Higgins maintained their friendship and working partnership for the entire time Banta's office was in Midtown.
"We worked together for about four or five years," he said. "She was very supportive of what we did, and we could count on her to be at planning and board meetings to show support for what was happening in Midtown. I consider her a friend."
When Sister Higgins arrived at Villa Teresa, the exodus from, and deterioration of, the area hadn't yet begun in earnest.
"There were businesses all around when I got here," Sister Higgins said. "TG&Y, a drug store in Plaza Court, Mercy Hospital and a hotel across Classen Drive."
Over the next 20 years, however, the area deteriorated noticeably: vacant lots, shuttered businesses and houses, fewer families, more crime. Villa Teresa stayed put and went through rough years.
"People gave up on the area and moved out in the 1990s," Sister Higgins said. "The hotel catered to prostitutes before it finally burned down. We put up a fence in 1991, and a grant paid for coded entrance doors and cameras. We lost windows in the Murrah Building bombing in 1995."
Sister Higgins said things started to improve when Banta moved into the area.
"He was so encouraging," she said. "He brought in new businesses, improved things and gave us all hope." Sister Higgins eventually asked him to serve on the school's advisory board.
She went about getting to know her new neighbors other than Banta as well. She and the school kids took bread and cookies to new businesses in the area, met owners, showed up at City Council meetings that dealt with Midtown business. She took a shamrock plant to McNellie's Public House when it opened and is on a first-name basis with nearly every owner or manager in the neighborhood.
Even after things started improving, Sister Higgins said the school and the area faced challenges. It was about this time that she became very involved in City Council meetings, where she met Mayor Mick Cornett.
Cornett describes Villa Teresa as an "anchor of Midtown," the same description he uses for St. Anthony Hospital, and he has great respect for Sister Higgins.
"She is very honest and a strong advocate for her position," he said. "At the same time, she's not afraid to back off or correct things if she feels she's wrong. She doesn't advocate with misinformation."
One of the positions Sister Higgins advocated for was a pedestrian crossing near the main entrance to the school.
"We had a parent hit by a car, so we wanted pedestrian crossing signs and a flashing light," she said. "I was given the runaround by the city. I was told it was a federal funding project, or that private schools couldn't get the funds, or that I was talking to the wrong department."
Finally, Sister Higgins argued her position with the City Council. She won. To say thanks, she took 125 students to a meeting. She still laughs when she tells the story of the November 16, 2004, meeting, when all the students told the City Council, "Thank you, and God bless you" in unison.
Sister Higgins isn't done advocating for Midtown. She wants to see more family housing in the area, as well as new businesses.
Cornett said she is worthy of admiration because she's willing to try to enact change at City Hall.
"I think she lends credibility to the idea of civic advocacy," he said. "We need people to be engaged with the process." "Greg Horton