Turning a house into a home as partners in charity
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LAWRENCE — Early last century, the house across the street from St. John the Evangelist Church here was a Victorian beauty.]
But for years now, it had functioned as a fraternity party house for students at the University of Kansas. By the time it went into foreclosure in 2011, the three-story structure was a disaster spreading from one room to the next.
Many people in town thought St. John the Evangelist Parish was crazy when it purchased the property.
But parishioners banded together and worked hard to bring the place back to a semblance of its former beauty.
They cleaned up the yard, refinished floors, repaired woodwork, plastered and painted walls — even painted a mural in the foyer.
And when they were done, they did something really crazy.
They gave it away.
A home with a purpose
The parish had been using the refurbished house for meeting space and to accommodate visiting priests, but Fathers Mike Scully and Jeff Ernst, both Capuchin Franciscans, saw a greater purpose.
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas Emergency Services had been operating out of a small space in the parish center for years.
Serving all of Douglas County, the workload for the Lawrence office was expanding far beyond its capacity to operate in so limited a space.
“And the thought occurred to us” said Father Mike, pastor. “We might as well just give them that whole building — and they can use it as their center here in Lawrence.”
“It’s a beautiful Victorian home,” said Ken Williams, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. “And Father Mike just said, ‘If you would like to occupy that house, it’s yours.’”
“The parishioners are fine with it,” said Father Mike. “They realize there must be an outreach for the poor.
“We do not charge them for the use of the building.”
Nickie Daneke, director of the Lawrence office, was overwhelmed by the generosity of the gesture and what it meant for her mission.
“Because we can keep our overhead costs low,” she said, “we can help more of those in need.
“And the need is very great in Douglas County.”
Indeed, 36 percent of the children in Douglas County qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“Those kids that are now home,” said Williams, “get two meals guaranteed during the school year. Now [with school out for the summer], where are those kids going to get their meals?
“The timing of this couldn’t be better, so we can get a food pantry up and running and try to help out there.”
But a food pantry is only one of the many plans Daneke has for the new space.
The parish-based model
The relationship between Daneke and St. John the Evangelist started as the realization of a parish-based model envisioned by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
Administrators thought joining forces with local churches would be the best way for Catholic Charities to meet the greatest needs, especially in the rural communities it served.
“They worked out a model of expansion and that model was: ‘Let’s put Catholic Charities back into the church,’” said Williams.
Administrators believed that if the parish became involved in supporting the work of Catholic Charities, the program would grow.
“And that’s exactly what has happened in Lawrence,” said Williams.
In 2010, Daneke was hired to launch the new program.
Father John Schmeidler, OFM Cap., pastor of St. John the Evangelist at the time, welcomed the relationship with Catholic Charities.
“He was extremely supportive of us,” said Kim Brabits, director of program operations.
“He even became a board member,” said Daneke. “He brought me in, offered me an office right there in the parish offices, and treated me as a staff.
“The nun here, [Ursuline] Sister Marcella Schrant, helped take our incoming calls and greeted folks.”
That support continued when Father Mike and Father Jeff took over the reins.
“This is a smart model,” said Daneke. “It’s great because the priests can be priests — and if they have somebody with poverty or social needs, they can refer them to us and we’re right here in-house.”
With so many cuts to federal programs, those in need are relying more on help at a local level. Parishes may be able to give monetary help, but Catholic Charities has the skills and resources to assess needs and recommend viable solutions.
“Because of this partnership,” said Daneke, “we’ve served over 2,000 people here. And we’ve housed over 75 people this summer — from homelessness to housing.”
Expanding to meet the need
Now that they are settling into their new center, Daneke and her AmeriCorps member volunteer, Fran Pack, refer to their former location as “the dorm room.”
“We were all on top of each other in one little office,” said Pack.
“Now we have the space to utilize more volunteers,” said Daneke. “And we can provide more services to those in need.”
The center currently offers rapid rehousing and homeless prevention programs, pregnancy and immigration counseling, and works with The Willow, a domestic violence shelter.
It runs a commodity food program for seniors, in conjunction with Harvesters, and has shelves of food, cleaning and personal care items for those in need.
In this new space, Daneke hopes to turn those shelves into a large pantry. She also hopes to expand many current programs, like Within My-Reach relationship training, financial literacy training and strengths-based case management.
“Now we’re able to do more self-sufficiency activities, because we have the room to do them,” she said.
To that end, the center wants to hosts groups that focus on life skills, finance and jobs training.
“We got a donation from a grant so now we have computers for people to work on their resumes,” said Daneke.
To help with the expansion, the center recently hired a new case manager, Eric Fitzmorris.
But many more volunteers are needed to make all of Daneke’s dreams for serving Douglas County come true.
Father Mike, however, is confident Catholics in Lawrence will fill that need.
“One of the main quotes from Scripture that we use all the time is from Matthew’s Gospel,” he said. “‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’
“And so, that is a guide for us here at St. John’s and should be a guide for all Catholics.
“It is the basis for mercy and justice in our world — and that’s what we want.”
Indeed, that caring attitude has made Lawrence a successful example of the parish-based model for Catholic Charities.
And Daneke is quick to give credit to parishioner support for the success of her center.
“We don’t do this alone,” she said. “I truly believe this is an act of love and an act of God.
“Our goal in Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas is to reach people in 21 counties. And this parish model is a way of making that a reality.”