ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Jean Webster, who opened a soup kitchen in Atlantic City 25 years ago when she saw a homeless man rummaging in the trash and has been serving meals to the down-and-out ever since, died Monday. She was 75.
Her death was confirmed by the Rev. John Scotland, a longtime colleague. He said Webster had suffered from heart and lung ailments for years and had been hospitalized since Dec. 23.
“Her lungs just gave out,” Scotland said.
Webster, a former chef, was moved to the point of tears when she saw the homeless man foraging for food in 1986. She decided to devote the remainder of her life to feeding the poor.
Sister Jean’s Kitchen served hot meals to the poor twice a day in the shadow of Atlantic City’s billion-dollar casinos. She initially fed up to 35 people a day from her own kitchen before moving into a church.
“She never called them homeless people or bums or hobos,” Scotland said. “They were always her guests. She always told me you should never look down on anyone unless you’re looking down to help them up.”
Though Webster was not a nun, her work earned her the moniker “Sister Jean,” as she was known in Atlantic City.
“It’s a sad day in Atlantic City,” City Councilman Marty Small said. “We lost a great one today. She would literately give you the shirt off her back. She helped thousands upon thousands of needy people here. She’s going to be sorely missed.”
Webster was the first black woman to become a sous chef in Atlantic City, said Scotland, who is executive director of Friends of Jean Webster, the nonprofit agency that supported her soup kitchen.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, Webster said feeding the poor was God’s calling to her.
“I can’t turn them back,” she said. “God told me to feed them, He didn’t say who to turn back and who to feed. This is what I do.”