It’s an unassuming house in the Irish Channel surrounded by the former St. Thomas Housing Development. Since 2010, it’s been the St. Thomas House of Hospitality, part of the Catholic Worker Movement that offers refuge to those whose lives are in transition.
“Creating a harmonious community is the No. 1 goal, and getting people back on their feet,” said Dan Thelen, New Orleans Catholic Worker resident volunteer. “Just living together is radical, since we all come from different walks of life, but in society it is very doable because of the set of (Catholic) values. Our value is hospitality.”
More than 40 people of varied ages, cultures, backgrounds and situations have lived in the house since it opened. Six beds are available to those who seek to live in community; four beds are for Catholic Worker volunteers; and two couches provide temporary shelter for those needing it.
Leonard Howard, 37, a resident for approximately four months, said he’s learned from others, learned to get along with others and to accept people for who they are.
“We all work together to help each other out,” Howard said. “We are in one accord and help the community by sharing whatever we have.”
“We feel we fill a special gap,” Thelen said. “A lot of shelters have all sorts of rules and are more clinical in their approach. This is a home, a place where people experience a web of relationships with those who live here or just come visit and know that people care about you.”
Learned by doing
Thelen co-founded the St. Thomas House of Hospitality with Joe and Katy Heeren-Mueller. He had met Katy when he was a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member in New Orleans. Katy Heeren-Mueller said she had been praying about opening such a home in New Orleans after reading “The Long Loneliness,” an autobiography of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in New York in the 1930s with Peter Maurin.
She invited Thelen to live in the Catholic Worker community lifestyle with her and her husband Joe – who had worked at a Catholic Worker Movement house in Cleveland – until a permanent space was located. About two years later, Hope House offered a home.
Faith in action
Heeren-Mueller sees the Catholic Worker Movement house as faith in action with a support system.
“This house has become more than I thought it would be,” she said. “People are so happy. … People dine and relate to each other and can share. No matter who you are or what you can contribute, you are welcomed at the table.”
Over the years, they discovered the optimal way to run the New Orleans house. No blueprint exists; each Catholic Worker Movement house is run independently and establishes its own rules while upholding Catholic ideals of charity, kindness to neighbors and monthly potlucks called “clarification of thought.” Today, 227 Catholic Worker communities commit to “voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless.”
St. Thomas House of Hospitality has prayer before meals, and Catholic social teaching is discussed often, Thelen said. Prayer services and Bible studies have been conducted.
Initially, anybody who needed a place to stay was invited to live at the St. Thomas House. Realizing that not everyone could prosper in a community lifestyle, volunteers now extend invitations for an initial trial, and house residents – whose average stay is 18 months to two years – get a say in the final decision if someone is extended an invitation to live at the house.
In God’s time
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from living in the house is God’s running the show,” Thelen said. “When I was ready to throw in the towel about starting the movement here, Hope House gave us a house. When people didn’t get along in the house in the beginning, the pieces started to come together. Or when our finances were low, someone would donate money.”
It takes an average of $2,200-2,400 a month to run the six-bedroom/four-bath house. Included in that is the discounted rent from Hope House in exchange for St. Thomas House of Hospitality preparing meals twice weekly for Hope House clients. While considered a simple budget for 10 people to live on, it’s still a big undertaking, Thelen, 29, said.
Spreading out the tasks
Live-in volunteers, like Thelen, generally cook and maintain finances, arrange events, fund-raisers and networking and do what it necessary for the house to function. All residents contribute part of their salary to cover expenses and share chores such as gardening and housework.
Area Catholic churches such as St. Alphonsus Parish down the street and St. Joseph on Tulane Avenue, Trinity Episcopal Church and a multitude of individuals donate food, money or hold garage sales to fill in the gaps.
The reliance on God’s providence – a belief held by Dorothy Day who is on the path to sainthood – lives at St. Thomas House of Hospitality. Heeren-Mueller illustrated the power of prayer to fulfill the house’s needs through a story. On Valentine’s Day, she had prayed for help to meet expenses, and a woman randomly stopped by to donate $500 shortly after.
“Our needs are always met, and that’s something that blows my mind,” she said. “That’s the amazing thing – the reliance on prayer and hard work shows me that God watches out for those in need.”
Thelen’s reliance on God’s providence brought him to New Orleans to meet Heeren-Mueller through the JVC and help others in a Catholic Worker Movement house.
“That providence has given me faith that I don’t have to worry; it’s out of my hands,” he said. “I’m just a steward of the invisible hand of God. I consider myself a witness of that hand and am grateful for it.”
Giving to others
Thelen sees the house not only as a refuge for those in transition but also as a distribution point – if there is excess food or blankets or whatever, it is passed on to others in need.
Ryan Meyers, a live-in house volunteer who is considered the “cheerleader for God’s providence,” agrees how God provides.
“You see that over and over again,” said Meyers, who teaches at Good Shepherd School. “It is bound to increase your faith.”
A former youth minister and teacher in Mississippi, Meyers was drawn to Dorothy Day’s ideals after a Manresa retreat and said he’s gained perspective on living in community with people of varied backgrounds.
“My presence hopefully is as meaningful to them as theirs is to me,” he said.
“Because we are a community, we are very happy that people are happy here and living well within the community,” Thelen said. “People come into the house and appreciate its communal life.”
Visit www.nolacatholicworker.org. The house welcomes donations of food for residents and the biweekly meal at Hope House, money and garage sale items. A fall Fais Do Do will be held at Cafe Istanbul’s Healing Center.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.