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By Sister Corinne Florek, OP
November 10, 2020, St. Louis, Missouri – Does the photo above look familiar? For many Dominican Sisters, this was their home during their canonical novitiate year in St. Louis. The Collaborative Dominican Novitiate (CDN) moved to this location in 2001.
Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP (Adrian) and Cathy Arnold, OP (Peace) worked here for two years until it was decided to move the novitiate to Chicago. Moving out was one thing, but what to do with the house was another. Through a series of connections and collaboration, the former novitiate has become a home for women transitioning from jail or prison to new life in the community.
Sister Julie Schwab, OP (Sinsinawa) spent a few days at the CDN in the Fall of 2019 and, when she heard that the house would be sold, she gave Sister Cathy a list of organizations who needed more housing in St. Louis. “I was at the National Association of Recovery Residences (NARR) Conference and had been thinking how that house would lend itself to recovery housing, so I asked around to see who was looking for more space,” she said.
Sitting next to Sister Julie during the conference was Laura Toledo, Executive Director of the Center for Women in Transition, who told her that her agency was hoping to open a new home for women in the near future. The Center is a St. Louis-based nonprofit whose mission is to advocate for and assist women in the criminal justice system to support their successful transition to family and community.
Laura and her colleague, Barbara Baker, came to see the novitiate and immediately felt that the house would be a perfect fit. “The house has an aura of peace and comfort,” Laura said. “We fell instantly in love with the place.”
“I felt grateful to help make the connections in this process, and that the changes that the CDN made to the house in 2002 matched the needs of the women who will live there now,” Sister Cathy said. “I hope the women enjoy the house as much as we did.”
Sister Cathy made yet another connection: this time between Laura and Sister Corinne Florek, OP (Adrian), then Executive Director of the Religious Communities Impact Fund (RCIF), to request a low-interest loan for the purchase.
While she loved the idea of repurposing the novitiate to be used as a ministry for women, Sister Corinne said, she did not have enough funds at the time for the entire loan. She put Laura in contact with Sarah Smith, Director of the Mercy Partnership Fund in St. Louis.
“Sisters of Mercy were among the Center’s founders, so we were eager to collaborate with RCIF in supporting [the Center’s] work in providing housing opportunities for women leaving the criminal justice system,” Sarah said.
Laura secured a forgivable loan from the St. Louis Mental Health Board and, with the loans from the RCIF and the Mercy Partnership Fund, the transition became a reality in July. In September, the first residents moved into the Sharon House, a long-term residence for up to 24 women, named for Sister Sharon Schmitz, RSM.
“What going to Sharon House means to me is a chance to be independent again with a little structure, which for a recovering addict and alcoholic is very important,” said Beverly, one of the first residents. “The positive environment, neighborhood, sober living, and the sense of safety and security is so what I need and look forward to. For me, it is a wonderful, better way of life and support.”
For both Sister Corinne and Sarah, this is what impact investing is all about. Keeping assets in the community and affordable and helping the most vulnerable – not financial return – are the goals.
“Projects like this are what give me the energy to continue to do this work,” Sister Corinne said. “I hope others will consider how to use their investments to create hope and resilience for all in our community, especially those who have been excluded for so long.”
For the many Dominican Congregations whose women made their novitiate here, Sharon House is a wonderful new ministry that embodies the spirit of the Dominican tradition, “give to others the fruits of their contemplation.”
The Dominican Congregations of Adrian, Hope, Houston, Mission San Jose, San Rafael, and Tacoma are among the sponsors of RCIF.
July 24, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – If all goes well, a depiction of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth by Sister Alma Marie Messing, OP, could find its way to the walls of Santa Sabina, the home in Rome of a community of about 30 Dominican Friars – many of whom serve in the Dominican Curia.
Sister Alma was inspired during a January 2020 gathering in which Adrian Dominican Sisters envisioned the future. During the period of contemplation, the Sisters had the choice of reflecting on a number of images of the Visitation, when Mary and her relative Elizabeth – expecting Jesus and John the Baptist respectively – shared the joy of giving life and of being part of God’s plan.
Sister Alma was intrigued by the image of the two women holding their hands up together in joy and connection. “They put their hands up in the air like a high-five with both arms, which I think is a very American gesture,” Sister Alma recalled. She based her creation of The Visitation on that image, veiling the faces of the two women.
Sister Alma created the Visitation using quilling, an ancient art form that began in the 15th century. “The information I have is that because paper was so tedious to make, the monks didn’t waste a scrap,” Sister Alma explained. “They used their pens to roll the paper. That’s why it’s called quilling.” Quilling has been resurrected as an art form and several companies sell special papers to use for the craft.
“I made a couple [of the Visitation images] and then I tore them apart,” Sister Alma said. “I thought they were awful.” When the Sisters in the Dominican Life Center began sheltering in place because of COVID-19, Sister Alma created a third image, about 9-by- inches. “I took it to the Sisters and showed them, and they raved about it,” she said.
Sister Alma said that Caldwell Dominican Sister Patricia Daly, OP, was impressed by the piece of art and believed that it should be taken to Santa Sabina by a Sister who planned to go to Rome in November. Hopes are that, by then, U.S. citizens will again be allowed to travel to Europe.
Sister Alma said she has been creating a number of items with quilling, including wreaths, poinsettias, candles, and candy canes for use as Christmas ornaments and has sold them in the annual Christmas bazaar at the Motherhouse. “I don’t need quiet,” she said. “I just need a table and I can watch TV while I do it.”
Sister Alma’s talent in art balances her formal ministry as a science teacher at the high school and college levels. In 1978, she began 25 years of ministry at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, primarily working in the Education Department, responsible for the museum’s Elder Hostel program. Drawing on her special interest in the space program developed while at Barry University in Miami, Sister Alma gave presentations for several years at the Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC).