Community, Service and Charism
By Erin Reder
For more than five years, a small group of vocation and formation directors in the Sisters of Charity Federation dreamed, discussed and debated the concept of a house of Charity as a place for offering hospitality, experiencing the Charity Charism together, sharing prayer, living in community and ministering with the poor. As the dreaming continued, the idea of creating space to offer others, young adults in particular, evolved. Lengthy meetings took place to determine who would come, where would such a home be located, and could it really work? A driving force behind the discussions, S. Monica Gundler, saw the dream come to fruition when she arrived in New Orleans, La., on New Year’s Eve 2009 to prepare the “House of Charity” for its first guests.
The 19 young adult houseguests were part of a SC Federation ministry trip and scheduled to arrive on Jan. 4 – the Feast Day of Elizabeth Seton. Preparation was a whirlwind. “We bought all the things we needed,” S. Monica said. “S. Janet Gildea did the cooking. She sent us a menu with a list of all the cooking utensils she would need. S. Renee Rose, DC, and I went to the grocery and the store to get everything. Somehow we came up with 27 air mattresses and all the stuff we needed for the week. The New Orleans Daughters of Charity had extra chairs and folding tables so everyone could sit down together for dinner. It was a great experience; a wonderful week.”
Students of DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., visited the
New Orleans House of Charity while taking part in a service
trip to the city this past winter.
The week confirmed that all the discussions and meetings, all the time and energy spent were worth the wait. Shortly after the January trip, S. Monica packed her belongings in Cincinnati, Ohio, and made the move to New Orleans to become the house’s first permanent resident. In April, S. Renee arrived, and by June, S. Claire Regan, a Sister of Charity of New York, had joined her.
“New Orleans is a place of great need. And those needs will continue,” S. Monica said of the decision to make New Orleans home. “It’s a place that needs health care and education, and not to mention the rebuilding efforts to the infrastructure of the city that really took a beating [after Hurricane Katrina.]”
Located off Carollton Avenue on Apricot Street, the house itself was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It is situated in a mixed neighborhood in terms of ethnicity and income. It has a dream kitchen, with a lot of counter space and room to move around and cook. There are five and one-half bathrooms and several bedrooms, some dorm style, a side yard with patio, and second-floor balcony porch.
There is plenty of extra space meant to be kept flexible depending on the week’s guests. Since February, S. Monica has hosted five groups of young adults, Sisters and other volunteers, as well as numerous dinner guests.
Guests of the New Orleans’ House of Charity gather in the chapel for morning prayer.
S. Monica said every group and stay is different, but the work is never hard to find. Mornings usually begin with breakfast and lunch packing, morning prayer in the chapel and then off to the work site. Depending on the day the work may vary from pulling weeds, removing debris, painting and caulking to weather stripping, installing a toilet and flooring, or removing bathroom tiles.
After the work day, there is time for showers and a little relaxing, a home-cooked dinner and possibly evening reflection time. “We have a chapel in the house, and generally conduct morning prayer there. Evening prayer, because it’s more conversational and reflective, might be in a circle around the table or upstairs in the community room.
“[In the past, when] we did these service and immersion trips we always used the Charity charism for a foundation for prayer and reflection,” S. Monica continued. “We might have a night to talk about St. Vincent de Paul; seeing Christ in everyone; and that Christ is especially present in the poor. Then we might do a prayer and reflection on that. The feedback that we got from young adults over the trips was that the prayer experience in particular was very powerful. Now that we have the house, they can experience living in community with us, and having those opportunities for prayer and sharing.”
With each visit, guests take with them much more than sore backs and aching feet. “It’s more than the work,” S. Monica said. “The work is important but it is also the relationships that they build with people and how they experience the idea of service. It’s more than what they can do for them but also how they can be with them.”
The stories are often heartbreaking, but volunteers are quickly uplifted when they witness the genuine appreciation and joy that the people of New Orleans continue to display even after losing so much.
“One of the things that we’ve found is that the spirit and faith of the people is great,” S. Monica said. “They are so faith-filled, and so grateful. The young people have said they feel like they get so much from the witness of the people. They are so open, and in some ways, they can’t believe people still want to come. They have been real witnesses of faith and generous in sharing what they have.”
The stories are endless; and the needs are growing once again. Recently S. Monica has been volunteering with Catholic Charities to work with the fishermen affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the boat owners and fishermen were just beginning to come back from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects, and just as they were starting to make money during the crab season, they were shut down. For most, it is the only livelihood they know, and as a result, are in crisis.
As the House of Charity continues to develop and discover its full potential, S. Monica says she looks forward to its promise as a place where young adults can come for an experience of community to deepen their faith and possibly think about what they are doing with their life in general; a place of renewal for Sisters in terms of mission; and a place of service to the family of New Orleans.
To take a virtual tour of the New Orleans House of Charity, click here.
From the Houseguests
The following excerpts are taken from reflections of House of Charity guests participating in 2010 service trips to New Orleans. To read their entire reflections, click here.
The June Nuns’ Build was Seton High School and College of Mount St. Joseph alumnae Emily Meyer’s second service trip to New Orleans.
“This was my first stay at the House of Charity. The experience of living with only Sisters turned into a wonderful week. The House of Charity was welcoming and it felt like home while I was there. I lived in community with a group of Sisters from across the country and I can only say that it was normal. We had discussions on topics from the oil spill to the NBA finals. I could not have asked for better hospitality or support from the Sisters. The fact that we knew we had a home-cooked meal from S. Renee was another great welcome home at the end of the day. We spent time praying, discussing our work, and processing the circumstances in order to gain perspective on our week.”
College of Mount St. Joseph student Megan Peña (front row, second from left) participated in the January service trip.
“I never thought I could have so much fun, help so many people, and figure out so many things about myself in one week. I had been contemplating doing a year of service after graduation and this was the final push to me doing just that. I had an amazing time living with the Sisters of Charity. These women were so funny, had so many great life stories, and really made you see the light of God through their eyes. They are so caring and their relationship with the Lord is amazing. Some of these women did just as much work, if not more, than the students did. They even showed us how to have fun. None of the students understood how S. Renee could beat us all at Crazy Eights and Uno when she had claimed to have never played before, or when all the Sisters showed us how to really dance at Mulate’s restaurant in New Orleans.”
Sister of Charity Margaret Mach (front), with S. Monica Gundler, attended the Nuns’ Build in June.
“The House of Charity presented the opportunity to create a small community during the week with eight other women, some we did not know. Each morning we gathered in the chapel, calling on the intercession of Elizabeth, Louise, Vincent and Margaret, nourished with prayer for the work ahead. In the evening we gathered again to give thanks for the experience of the day, the people we met, and pray for the needs of the people in the region and all those who supported us. S. Renee, our gracious host, kept us well fed and was quick to see to all our needs. I felt a bond with all those I shared life with for that week, each person gracing me in a unique way. The simplicity of the living experience challenged me to reflect on the people who lost so much in Hurricane Katrina, yet nothing could compare to that. We shared sleeping space on air mattresses and lived out of our luggage – like an indoor camping experience.”
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