Her Secret Ingredient: Love
Celebrating Birthday Girl and Top Chef Leona Sullivan

October 2023
By Erika M. Hirschman, Contributing Writer

It has been said that cooking is love made visible.

For Leona Sullivan, one of Mustard Seed Shelter’s co-founders, nothing could be more true.

Leona shows her love for our guests – up to 40 women and children at a time – by planning, shopping for and cooking homemade meals four days a week with the help of dedicated volunteers.

Those delicious meals are shared at our home’s kitchen tables, where guests come together to break bread, talk about their day and share stories.

“We make each other laugh. We support each other. It’s really a family coming together,” says Leona.

Leona says she gets her ideas for meals from scouring recipes, her own experiences and background, and from the guests themselves who may crave or desire a particular food.

“I ask [the women] what they’d like to eat, what their children would like to eat,” she says.

Leona starts the week off by meal planning, making a list of necessary items and then shops with volunteer Laurie Shell every Tuesday. They team up and go to local stores including Gordon’s, Kroger and Jack’s Fruit & Meat Market to get supplies. Once they return, meal preparations begin.

Pots and pans clank around, fruit and vegetables get peeled and sliced, and movements are synchronized in the warm kitchen. Guests are excited and engaged and ask about the forthcoming meal.

Recently, Leona prepared a new Thai chicken with peanut sauce recipe that became a house favorite.

She also says meatloaf, sweet and sour beef, and scalloped potatoes are popular, along with some chicken fare, salads and spaghetti. Leona especially loves to shop for, cook and serve a variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables. She says it’s always a goal to provide fresh, homemade and balanced meals for the women and children, and adds that Mustard Seed’s partnership with Hidden Harvest is an important and appreciated one.

Leona loves to go out of her comfort zone and try new recipes and dishes. She says that she recently got a guest who “doesn’t do greens” to eat (and enjoy) sautéed asparagus and considers that “a win,” she says with a smile.

As a child, Leona loved to cook for her siblings, as her mom worked outside of the home. The kitchen became a place where she finds her creativity and joy. At Mustard Seed, Leona says numerous hours are spent listening to the many stories the guests have to share – another joy.

“We talk about their day, the kids share and we help each other, just sitting and talking,” says Leona.

Leona herself finds peace in cooking and says part of the healing process can come from sharing meals and socializing together.

And it’s not just about the main course.

Leona says she gets a kick out of making every guest a birthday cake or dessert. Some of the women have expressed to her that they’ve never had a birthday cake made for them. “So I ask: ‘What kind of birthday cake would you like?”

Leona’s made cheesecake, chocolate cake and, most recently, a strawberry and chocolate swirl cake. “I never made one of those before. I found a recipe and she loved it.”

That’s the point: It’s all made with love.


October is Leona’s birthday month! We all wish her a very happy birthday and a big thank you for all she does. You can make a life-changing gift to Mustard Seed Shelter in honor of Leona and/or see other ways to make a difference here.

Celebrating Leona’s birthday in 2023!


Leona Sullivan’s background is rich and varied. She was a member of the religious community The Home Visitors of Mary, based in Detroit. Upon leaving that community because of its shrinking size, then-Sister Leona took private vows to Bishop Kenneth Untener in Saginaw. She has spent her entire life dedicated to care of the poor.

In 1994, Leona was working as the director of the diocesan Office of Christian Service when she recognized a need for a women’s shelter in Saginaw. In 1995, Mustard Seed Shelter opened its doors. Leona and co-founders Rosalie Riegle and Jeannine Coallier began the work of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and sheltering the homeless –three women pooling their resources to make a difference in the lives of a few women at a time. Today, a small staff and an impressive army of volunteers do the work of Mustard Seed, which now shelters up to 40 women and children at a time.

If you are not familiar with Leona’s story, please visit themustardseedshelter.org/stories and read “Answering the Call to Mercy,” cover story of the Fall 2016 issue of FAITH Saginaw.


About Erika M. Hirschman
Erika M. Hirschman lives in Saginaw and is a veteran freelance writer. She has enjoyed meeting and interviewing the amazing, strong women at Mustard Seed Shelter. Erika is inspired by the stories she’s heard and feels grateful to those women who have trusted her to write and share those stories with our followers and supporters.