Angels Unaware

St. Thomas faculty, students and alumni have created a Catholic Worker house of hospitality that welcomes the homeless

A plaque at the door of the Catholic Worker house located on St. Paul’s West Side reads, from the Letter to the Hebrews: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.

Angels come in many guises. However, those who have created the Catholic Worker house — called Casa Guadalupana because its ministry is providing a home for Latino women and children in need of temporary housing — see themselves as simply practicing Christianity.

They are people like Brigid O’Neil, a recent St. Thomas graduate, one of two staffers who reside in the house and lead its community, helping its guests feel welcome, recover their strength and plan for a new life.

Another is Dr. Terry Nichols, who has taught theology at St. Thomas since 1988.

Nichols bought an uninhabited house in the summer of 1999 and paid for most improvements (volunteers kid him about his well-worn Menard’s credit card); the Casa pays the mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes out of individual donations. Nichols bought the Casa primarily to bring the idea of a Catholic Worker house into reality. And, as he modestly put it, "I had some money and thought I would invest it. I got a decent buy because it had structural problems," he hastened to add.

Nichols also led the "sweat equity" brigade that made the house livable. "It’s a great house and close to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church but there was a tremendous amount of work to do. There was massive leakage so we had to waterproof the back by digging a ditch nine feet deep and 60 feet long. It was brutal work," grinned Nichols, who owned a construction company before starting graduate studies in theology at Marquette University at age 41.

Theology teachers Dr. William Cavanaugh and Dr. Michael Naughton proposed the idea of a Catholic Worker house and help keep it going. Colleagues like Dr. Michael Hollerich, also in theology, and other faculty and students worked in shifts all summer digging up clay and rocks for the waterproofing, putting a new bath and bedroom in the basement and beginning the ongoing project of turning the garage into a combination recreation room and storage area. St. Thomas seniors like Eric Menzhuber and Tricia Nutter were volunteers who put in a great deal of time; both lived at the Casa last summer.

Now the house has six usable bedrooms; volunteers who staff the house use two of them. Typically a family in need occupies a bedroom, "usually a mother and children," Nichols explained. "One woman was living under a bridge before she came here; others have fled abusive relationships. We get calls at least once a day from churches and agencies trying to find space for homeless people. The housing shortage is terrible."

Casa Guadalupana’s goal is to get families on their feet through counseling, listening and interpreting (many speak little English), and helping them find employment and apartments. Families are not asked about their backgrounds and typically have nothing when they come. The Casa gives its residents clothing and furniture — that’s why twin beds, in particular, are always in short supply — when they move. A recent success story saw two families becoming acquainted at the house, then moving in together in one apartment when they found jobs.

Nichols is reluctant to talk about his contributions to the house. He gives most of the credit to his St. Thomas colleagues: "We all do what we can for people. It shouldn’t be an exception. I realized in graduate school that I was in a position to help others, it didn’t really cost me much and it really helps them. And, just as sciences have their labs, we put our faith into practice. Theology is not all theory. It’s really important that students we teach see the living witness of our faith."

Defining theology as the study of God and our relationship to God, Nichols explains that "a dimension of that is how we treat our fellow human beings. Probably every parish should have a hospitality house where people in need can drop in but it does take a lot of commitment and financing and time."

And Nichols — who has won a national Templeton Award for creating a course in science and religion, publishes extensively, and is one of five Roman Catholic theologians representing the U.S. Catholic bishops at national Faith and Order conferences — thinks "it is time well spent. God sends us these people to help. It’s applied theology with a living component."

"Despite the brokenness and the chaos of people’s lives, the Casa is a place of palpable grace," summarizes Cavanaugh. "This is not a shelter, but a home — one where people treat each other as fellow members of the household of God.

"Casa Guadalupana developed out of conversations among several Catholic Studies faculty members at St. Thomas and the people of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. There is both a deep reservoir of Catholic faith among the Latino people of the West Side and unmet economic need. The Catholic Studies program saw the opportunity to break down the divide between academic mission and the works of mercy."

After Nichols and his volunteers finished some summer renovations, Cavanaugh explained that "volunteers Kelly Johnson, Jose Cuellar and Gael Fonken moved in and began receiving homeless women and children. Johnson was the first Casa resident staffer; a graduate of Duke University, she is now pursuing a Ph.D.

"The Casa attempts to integrate service with prayer, liturgy and Catholic social thought," Cavanaugh said. "The community participates in the life of the parish, has frequent Masses at the house (Rev. David Smith, Theology Department, often says Mass there), and sponsors a series of discussions on Catholic social doctrine in which faculty and students of the St. Thomas Center for Catholic Studies have played a prominent role.

"Much of the inspiration for the Casa comes from Dorothy Day (Catholic social activist and journalist, 1897-1980), one of the founders (with Peter Maurin) of the Catholic Worker movement.

"As Dorothy Day understood it, the Gospel response to suffering was simple and personal: if someone is hungry, we should feed them, not rely on the state or someone else to do it. To see the face of Christ in another person is a call to charity, but it also is much more than that. For Dorothy Day — who had an intense devotion to the Eucharist — this means that we must treat others not simply as objects of our charity, but as members of our own body, which is Christ’s body.

"In practice, this means sharing life with the poor in houses of hospitality and offering witness against assaults on the dignity of life in our society, from abortion to economic exploitation to war. Such is the vision of the Casa."

"Scholars should be workers and workers should be scholars" was the philosophy of Peter Maurin, a French Catholic who influenced Dorothy Day’s work and who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1931. "The movement emphasized the danger of scholars being insulated from the difficulties of the world," explained Naughton, director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, which is part of the Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas. The Ryan Institute’s Peter Maurin Program emphasizes bringing relevant speakers to the St. Thomas campus and the Casa, developing university courses in the Catholic Worker tradition, and providing Latino Leadership Scholarships. The scholarships are directed to Latinos who are doing service in the Catholic Worker house because the aim is to help the community, not to get Latinos out of their community.

"The Casa was a community idea from the first. Bill Cavanaugh thought of it, I helped him develop plans, and people like Brigid O’Neil who run the house, and Terry Nichols, and a lot of students did most of the work," Naughton said. "It’s amazing what has been done."

It was a class called Rethinking Catholicism, which Brigid O’Neil ’99 took from Cavanaugh, that inspired her to take a turn leading the community at the Casa. "We studied Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. I knew then that I would work in that area," said O’Neil, an international studies major who served as a chaplain in Dowling Residence Hall last year. Cavanaugh asked her to head the Casa community in Spring 2000.

Like other staffers before her, O’Neil follows the Catholic vow of poverty, accepting no salary — though she recently started working in a coffee house three days a week. "That was pretty funny at first because I was not used to seeing cash so I was putting my tips in the register," O’Neil said with typical humor. "Now I live on those tips.

"We live in community, in solidarity with the families here. Of course, my idea of poverty is not realistic. I have parents and family who will never let me down. I have so much compared to these families."

O’Neil’s job is to organize daily life in the house. She advocates for the families in terms of school issues, connections with social workers and parenting classes, finding translators and English as a Second Language classes as needed, paying bills and organizing volunteers and donations. And occasionally she has to put out a fire; a child in residence started one last summer. She regrets not being more fluent in Spanish: "I grew up in California near the Mexican border and my parents were fluent Spanish-speakers. I wish I had learned more then."

The house survives entirely on donations, including leftover food from stores like Whole Foods Market, Burrito Mercado and other businesses. Families do their own cooking and would prefer tortillas, rather than organic bread. "Poverty is even harder when people have to give up what they are used to," O’Neil explained.

"The Catholic Worker house is a resting place rather than a shelter. It’s a community where we listen to their stories. Hopefully, we offer families enough time to get out of the mental and physical cycle of poverty."

A success last fall was two families moving out. "A couple with two children took a single mother under their wing and they got an apartment together. The parents have jobs, though they are usually low paying, like working in a popcorn factory or cleaning computers. It is not easy to get back on their feet economically, especially since many of our Spanish-speaking families can’t get government assistance," O’Neil explained. The house plans to keep families for two months, but the length of time for their relocation is more realistically four months or more.

Like every Catholic Worker house (there are about 100 in the United States), the Casa has a chapel, which is called "a Christ room, signifying a place for strangers in our homes," O’Neil explained. "In the Twin Cities, there are at least 100 homes where people have an extra room and open their homes to pregnant women through a program called Share-A-Life." At the Casa, Masses and prayer services followed by music often happen on Thursday nights.

Last fall, the chapel’s couches and pillows were gone — with the families that moved into an apartment. But the blue footprints on the cement floor remain. "I had a dream that we should do this," O’Neil said with a laugh, "and some of the St. Thomas students who volunteer here were happy to help."

"I live here. I work here. I don’t know what I’ll do later in life, but I’m pretty sure I won’t ever have a job I dislike because I have had this experience."

St. Thomas students volunteer regularly at the house, cleaning, painting or doing clerical work. So do people like Mary Lopez.

"Actually, Mary is one of kind," O’Neil said. "She’s our lifesaver. She comes in two days a week and gets us working. And she works so hard. She does whatever needs to be done, from clerical work to sanding and staining the deck."

"When I clean the floor, I don’t mop," said Mary Lopez, 85. "I scrub it on my hands and knees. I’ve been helping here once a week for a whole year. I live in southeast St. Paul but I am familiar with this community and know people around here." She is modest about her efforts but admits that "last week I scrubbed the kitchen, the laundry room and the room where they meditate. Then the college kids came and painted the floors."

Born in Mexico, Lopez came to Minnesota in 1916 and she has worked and raised her family here. When she retired, she became busier than ever because she volunteers at many places.

"This is my country and I like to help out," Lopez said with her quiet smile. "All my life I’ve been doing volunteer work; I started with my mother when I was nine years old. I’ve been helping in the Dorothy Day Center since 1980. When you do something for someone else, you go home feeling really good — especially if you make someone happy."