Xavier Community teaches members about themselves, others and God
by Jessica Langdon
Bring any eight women — whose ages span six decades — to live under one roof together, and there’s bound to be a lot of commotion.
Which is not a bad thing.
“Laughter,” said Denise Morris, a teacher who lives in the Xavier Community in Kansas City, Kan. “There’s just lots of laughter.”
This unique living situation brings together several Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and several laywomen to live simply together in what they call an “intentional community.”
The women contribute to expenses and responsibilities, but this isn’t like renting a place out of the classified ads.
“We’re not just trying to recruit roommates,” explained Sister Vicki Lichtenauer, SCL.
She is vocation director for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and a member of the Xavier Community.
“In a sense, you’re not just allowed to be an apartment dweller here,” she continued.
The residents build relationships, eat together, pray together, serve others together and support one another in their widely varied professions and interests.
“It’s a commitment to share,” said Sister Mary Rachel Flynn, SCL, a Xavier member.
Named for SCL founder Mother Xavier Ross, the Xavier Community launched in 1999 and has served as home to 26 women over the years.
Women have stayed anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years in this house near the Cathedral of St. Peter.
Three women this year have moved on to new opportunities — including Laurie Parker, who entered formation with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth — leaving open rooms.
And three new members will arrive between now and June 1.
Andrea Essner, who will move in at the end of May, is a St. Louis native who went to Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., and now works in admissions at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan.
She lived in community for a couple of years as a Jesuit volunteer and treasured the experience. So she was thrilled to come across this opportunity.
But first, she set up a three-day trial stay to check the fit — which just happened to be during one of this winter’s huge snowstorms.
The entire community was snowed in together.
“It’s a pretty good test,” she admitted. “It was really lovely. Every morning, someone was up making breakfast when I woke up. We went out and shoveled the driveway together. It was a very together feeling.”
Now, Essner can’t wait to share day-to-day life — making decisions based on what is best for everyone — and sharing dinner, prayers and many other experiences.
“I’m looking forward to the growth that will come with that,” she said.
Everyone has something to teach — and to learn — here.
“All of us have outside jobs or volunteer positions,” said Xavier Community member Sister Helen Bristow, SCL, “and so we form community when we’re here, but we’re also connected with ministries.”
Sister Helen works at the Duchesne Clinic in Kansas City, Kan., as a patient advocate.
After 50 years as a Sister and living in houses and convents, she was excited for a new opportunity, but had only a couple of days to decide whether this might be for her.
“I’m really happy that I made the move,” she said. “It’s been very enriching for me spiritually . . . and you never get in a rut here!”
Sister Helen has particularly cherished the opportunity to live and work with young women who are discerning religious life. That’s not a requirement for joining the Xavier Community, but several recent residents have given it some thought.
Sister Mary Geraldine Yelich, SCL — for a while the community’s oldest resident, in her early 80s — worked from home. But she loged countless hours on the phone and online, reaching out to legislators and researching issues as part of the social justice committee.
Kate Becker, a member of the community until this spring when she left for Ecuador, noted that Sister Mary Geraldine was often the last to go to bed at night, and she found her work inspiring.
Sister Mary Rachel has spent many years teaching and has worked at a treatment center for children who have been abused. She currently works at Cristo Rey School in Kansas City, Mo.
Sister Vicki’s background is in campus ministry.
To her, living with so many people from such a wide range of ages and experiences adds richness to life, and she loves to see how everyone’s circles overlap.
Becker didn’t know anyone in religious life very well except through service projects until she moved in with four nuns.
“They’re just real people,” she told friends who marveled at her living situation.
And they have made a very real impact on her life.
“I just feel like my perspective of God has gotten bigger since I’ve been here,” said Becker, who worked at Bridging the Gap, an environmental nonprofit organization in Kansas City, Mo. “There’s such a wealth of faith.”
Morris, a teacher at Resurrection School at the Cathedral in Kansas City, Kan., agrees.
Like any arrangement that involves living with others, “it’s fun, it’s silly, sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s frustrating,” she acknowledged.
But it’s much more.
“It’s fulfilling. It’s joyful,” continued Morris. “The word I was thinking of is ‘real.’ It’s real. There are everyday life situations.”
And while there is plenty of time together, the women have time to devote to their own projects and prayer.
“They gave me the room at the top of the house so I can go hide out there,” said Parker, who is admittedly introverted.
“Everybody’s just very respectful of each other’s space.”
Parker taught music and has been studying music therapy at the University of Kansas.
“Laurie’s major instrument is her voice,” said Sister Mary Rachel, but she plays the piano and guitar, too.
Parker often created musical parodies about her experiences in the community.
One nice evening, the women gathered around the fire pit in the backyard and sang along to a song called “Gas Station Pizza” about the time some of the Sisters treated the house to pizza from a convenience counter.
From the fun moments to serious issues, there’s always someone willing to share.
“Everybody really does pitch in if somebody needs something,” said Morris. “I’m always very moved by the generosity.”
When Morris needs help laminating projects at night for school, she has a friend in Sister Vicki.
They all approach life from different places, but they share a strong commitment to service and prayer, said Parker.
“Coming here, I maybe expected it to be a little more homogenous,” she said. “But I’m glad it’s not, because I definitely learn from everybody.”
‘Sense of who God is’
Many Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth have committed to live and work in Wyandotte County, said Sister Helen.
“I’m really proud of the fact that our Sisters are committed to be with the poor, the marginalized,” she said. “And we are all doing work not to make money, but to serve others, and we all do that in all of our ministries.”
“I feel very drawn to serve this community,” added Morris.
True to the SCL order’s Vincentian charism, the Sisters believe they are called to those who are most in need, explained Sister Helen.
The Xavier Community has offered hospitality to people who are new to the area and need somewhere to stay for a short time and has opened its doors to college students who are staying in the city during mission trips.
It also reaches out regularly to the wider community, often through its “People of Hope” program.
Sister Mary Rachel, who started the program, said that several years ago, the group became increasingly aware that people wanted to more fully understand the Vincentian charism, so they extended an invitation.
From pastors to neighbors to out-of-towners here on special projects, a group is invited on a regular basis to come to the house for dinner to share food and fellowship.
What do they discover about their hosts?
Well, like members of a family, the women of Xavier finish each other’s stories and sing each other’s praises.
And they provide each other, every day and in every way, a place to come home to.
“You go out and do your thing. Sometimes there’s good, sometimes there’s bad,” said Parker. “But you know you can always come back to a center.”
When someone walks through the door, someone else is likely to announce that they’re home and ask how the day went.
“I think it’s inspiring to come home every day and be with people who have the same passion to serve the marginalized, to stand with the oppressed, through whatever their ministry is,” said Morris.
Sister Helen agreed.
“These are women who are willing to give instead of take.”
Answering a call
Topeka native enters formation with Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Laurie Parker thinks she caught her family a bit off guard when she told them she was looking into religious life.
“I definitely have a very supportive family,” she said. “I think they were surprised, too, when I first started looking at this — as was I, really.”
But the more she discerned, the more she thought this might be right for her.
Parker entered formation with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in January.
“I think for me it was sort of a lesson in just being open,” said Parker, who grew up in Topeka. “I think this would not have necessarily been what I envisioned for myself 10 years ago.”
She and her two older brothers attended Catholic schools.
Parker went to Hayden High School, and the young musician studied at Washburn University, then Emporia State. She taught music at Catholic schools in Topeka and has most recently been studying music therapy at the University of Kansas.
Although she encountered nuns during her grade school days, she wasn’t yet thinking that might someday be a path for her.
Only after becoming a teacher herself at Assumption Grade School (now Mater Dei) in Topeka did she discover a strong connection with a Sister — longtime principal Sister Corita Conlan, SCL, who died on Jan. 1.
“She was tough but very, very compassionate,” said Parker, adding that there was a family feel to the school.
“She was really at the center of that,” she said.
The thought of religious life still didn’t truly strike Parker until she attended her first Kansas Catholic College Student Convention as a graduate student and heard from a panel of Sisters.
And then one day, she thought: “Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Her best friend has a relative who is a Benedictine Sister, and she looked into that order and a few other possibilities.
But she didn’t feel that monastic life was for her and wanted something near her home.
Soon she realized she enjoyed both the spirit of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and the way the community is organized.
“It’s basically that you are working with and among the people,” she said, adding that there is a particular interest in the poor.
“It could be people who are quite literally monetarily poor,” she said. “It could be people who are poor in education, poor in health.”
Parker said she looks forward to making more connections with the SCL community and to eventually learning more about the Vincentian charism.
“For me, it was a big lesson in being open to the voice of God and where he calls you — and trusting that sense that you are being called,” said Parker.