The new Catholic Worker residence, called the Simone Weil House, has an eclectic, Catholic group-house character. There currently are four people residing in the home — three formerly homeless individuals and one Catholic Worker volunteer. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
The new Catholic Worker residence, called the Simone Weil House, has an eclectic, Catholic group-house character. There currently are four people residing in the home — three formerly homeless individuals and one Catholic Worker volunteer. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

Susana took a drag of her cigarette and a sip of milk then rearranged the sewing on her lap.

She was sitting on the slightly cluttered front porch of a Northeast Portland bungalow this winter wearing Minnie Mouse ears, part of a collection of ear-adorned headbands.

“I like to make people laugh,” said Susana, 58. “My recent goal is to make 10 people smile and five people really laugh each week.”

A few months prior, her mind was on far different matters.

“My last week on the streets I had a heroin addict on one side and a meth addict on the other,” she recalled. “There was constant screaming and throwing things.”

Susana was able to exchange nights of fear and uncertainty for evenings creating handiwork and coaxing smiles because of a bold project underway in Portland. A new Catholic Worker house is taking shape, and its goal is not only to transform the lives of formerly homeless residents but to challenge the community that is coalescing around it.

Catholic Worker houses are “where the works of mercy — so central to the Gospel — are lived vividly and without equivocation,” said Joel Nigg, a member of St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland and supporter of the effort. “It’s bracing to witness; it changes you.”

A fierce advocate

Bert Fitzgerald — a 37-year-old with the mind of a philosopher and a heart for those on the peripheries of society — is the driving force behind the new house. He grew up in Los Angeles in an atheist family but attended a Catholic high school, and during a retreat his senior year was moved to join the church. “I felt a love that was from God that was just everything,” said Fitzgerald.

While earning a master’s degree in theological studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, he was introduced to a Catholic Worker house and eventually read Dorothy Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.”

Fitzgerald was captivated by the radical Catholic. Day was an intellectual, a journalist, a pacifist and a one-time atheist who fiercely advocated for the poor. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s amid the Great Depression, and her model for integrating service, faith, contemplation and activism has endured. There currently are around 200 Catholic Worker communities in the United States.

“The pieces of life that came together were a very attractive convergence,” said Fitzgerald of Day’s vision. “It’s this apostolic community and an openness and living with those in the lowest position of society, and then the intellectual component. There’s this vibrancy that comes from it all.”

Getting uncomfortable

A few years ago, Nigg — director of the psychology division in the Oregon Health and Sciences University School of Medicine — and a group of fellow Portland Catholics began to look seriously at forming another Catholic Worker house in the city. The most recent had dissolved around 2010. Nigg said no one took the lead, however, until Fitzgerald “decided to take the plunge.”

Residents began moving into the rented Northeast Portland house, a few blocks from St. Andrew Parish, last summer, and just before the new year Fitzgerald established a nonprofit to sustain the community.

Because anyone may start a Catholic Worker house and there’s no central authority or requirements, houses have diverse missions. The new house, named after the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who died in 1943, aims to serve multiple functions grounded in the Gospel and the views articulated by Day and Weil. It’s a transitional residence for homeless people or refugees, who live alongside Catholic Worker volunteers such as Fitzgerald. It hosts gatherings for neighbors, guests from all backgrounds, and those in need of food and friendship. It aspires to be a hub of intellectual life.

Fitzgerald sees the residence serving as a “public household.” It’s a concept based on the idea that a home can serve public functions normally associated with commercial or institutional spaces. For example neighbors could use the house as a spot for coworking and people in need could do laundry or take a shower on designated days.

Simone Weil is a fitting namesake for the home, given Fitzgerald wants to help build bridges and create dialogue across ideologies through the community. Weil, attracted to the Catholic Church though she never converted, was a figure who could be considered of the extreme left and extreme right. “She had a love for tradition and limitless solidarity with the disenfranchised,” said Fitzgerald, who attends Mass at St. Andrew as well as at St. Patrick in Northwest Portland. “Here I want people from different ideologies to work and pray together. No one should feel totally comfortable.”

Nigg sees the community as well-suited to achieve this end. “The church has become a scene for the culture wars to play out,” he said. “But no matter your ideological views, you can get behind the Catholic Worker. Because it looks to the fundamentals of the Gospel as a unifying force; the works of mercy are a universal call.”

Nonprofit status

The decision to create a nonprofit to support the house “was a topic of deep conversation,” said Nigg, who’s been interested in the Catholic Worker movement since first volunteering at a house nearly 40 years ago. Catholic Worker houses traditionally do not seek the tax-exempt status, though a few have gone that route. Day “was displeased about participating in the IRS system that way,” said Nigg. “Once you buy into the tax system, you’d cease to be as free; you can’t speak out on some political matters.”

However, Nigg said some believe “this thinking is too purist for the modern age, with the way that fundraising works. It’s already hard enough to start a house as it is,” and it’s easier to raise money when supporters receive a tax deduction.

The Simone Weil House is not technically the nonprofit. In My Backyard is the name of the nonprofit that finances the house, and — in the future — other projects. Among them, according to Fitzgerald, will be efforts to help the faithful rethink ways to aid the homeless.

Nigg said parishes can have a crucial role to play in the house. One way Catholic Worker communities often survive is through a regular stream of support from parishes. “The budget for this community to work is not that big, and if we had 10 churches giving a few hundred dollars a month, that could make almost half the budget.”

Fitzgerald has had initial discussions with priests at several parishes, but no formal connections yet exist.

Refuge and relationships

To live compassionately in a community of people from markedly different and often difficult backgrounds is a messy, if holy, endeavor.

“Everyone brings their personal issues and there are some tensions,” acknowledged Fitzgerald, who had previous experience with Portland’s homeless community while working as assistant director at St. Francis Dining Hall.

Regular house meetings are held to discuss relationship issues and frustrations, “and that involves everyone taking responsibility for their own contribution to issues,” Fitzgerald said. “In my own leadership, too, I want to do a better job modeling that. I’m working on it.”

The transition from living solo in a tent to a group household is a big one, said Susana. “You are doing your own thing and then suddenly you need to work with everyone, get along with everyone. But overall it’s been a good adjustment.”

“It’s adjusting to living on the streets that’s most painful,” said Doug, her partner and a fellow resident.

An articulate and soft-spoken 50-year-old, Doug holds a medical degree. He explained that health complications, a misdiagnoses and several bad relationships derailed his life and led to his homelessness.

“I’m a self-conscious person who didn’t want to appear homeless, so it took a lot of energy and work not to look homeless,” Doug said. “Being at the house is amazing.”

Susana found herself on the streets when she left her husband, who’d turned violent. “The last three days I was there were at gunpoint,” she said.

With a number of health problems, Susana has been in and out of the hospital since arriving at the house in July. “But I’m actually getting to take care of my health,” she said. “You can’t do that homeless. It takes a month to get an appointment, and then if you go you may lose everything when you leave and stuff gets stolen.”

Neither Susana nor Doug have forgotten those on the streets. Doug tries to help out at St. Francis Dining Hall once a week, and Susana delivers blankets and clothes.

“I don’t want people to feel we abandoned them,” Doug said.

Still in formation

One of the biggest challenges is the need for at least one additional Catholic Worker volunteer. Right now, there are three residents and Fitzgerald.

“The core is the Catholic Workers who want to commit to voluntary simplicity, to practice contemplation and action,” said Nigg. “Until that prayer community is there living it,” the Catholic Worker house is not fully established.

One obstacle to that end is limited space. It’s already a full house with Doug, Susana and the third resident, Ian. Fitzgerald uses one of the three bedrooms as an office and sleeps in the large closet.

The hope is this summer to buy or rent another property nearby that would provide additional room.

The current house, built in 1929, has an eclectic, Catholic group-house character. The front room contains a votive candle stand, left by former residents, and near a statue of Mary are books on gardening, wine, the church and fermentation. The kitchen is stocked with Mason jars containing grains, and there’s a door covered in a hodgepodge of household communications — a grocery list and a request to not mix up laundry among them.

Buoyed by support

The Simone Weil House has many people rooting for its success and offering assistance.

Jessica Chapman is a former Portland Catholic Worker volunteer with a background in mental health care and social work. She is Fitzgerald’s weekly check-in person. She’s helped facilitate group conversations at the house and has served as a peacemaker. “I’m also here if Bert needs to share ideas or vent,” she said.

Chapman wants to do whatever she can to make the house sustainable long term.

“I hope this can plant roots and be a part of the community for years to come,” she said.

The pastor of St. Andrew, Father Dave Zegar, has celebrated Mass for the fledgling community and offers Fitzgerald frank counsel. “I’m trying to help him focus his efforts,” he said.

Matt Cato, director of the Portland archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace, has met with Fitzgerald and is excited about his efforts, calling Catholic Worker houses places where people “are living out what Jesus preached.”

‘Something beautiful’

Ongoing public events at the Simone Weil House include a weekly Wednesday dinner and discussion of Dorothy Day’s autobiography, and a potluck, talk and Mass every third Friday of the month.

A gathering this winter brought together a diverse group that included a real estate agent, a lawyer and a University of Portland campus minister. The meal featured pulled pork along with vegetarian fare — hummus, lentils and kale salad. Residents and guests ate, discussed social issues, and laughed. Two guests washed dishes. People prayed and then read and discussed “The Long Loneliness.” The night concluded with a fermented food swap.

The lawyer, Lisa Fitzgerald (not related to Bert Fitzgerald), is a board member of the nonprofit and a regular participant in house gatherings. She works in the Portland public defender’s office, where she advocates for homeless youths.

Lisa said reading about Day’s life makes clear the profound difference between helping the poor as an act of charity and inviting people into community, “with everyone together participating in something beautiful.”

She also loves the small scale. “The idea is not, ‘Let’s do as much as possible here,’” said Fitzgerald. “It’s: ‘Let’s invite people in and support people with love.’”

“It’s a personal, Christian response to the homelessness issue,” observed Nigg.

When Nigg was younger, he could relate some to the instability of homelessness. But at this point in his life, “it’s even more important to my spiritual and moral health not to lose track of all this,” he said. “Your thoughts and assumptions are influenced by what you are exposed to. If you don’t see the poor, they don’t factor into your view of the world; they become an afterthought.”

The existence of a Catholic Worker house is good for churches and for cities, he said. “They are healthy to have around, just as a monasteries and universities are good for a community.”

They are a sign of how the Gospel can be lived out, Nigg added, “and even if we are not part of the house, they challenge us and help us reflect and not get too comfortable. To see what they do, to feel that — it’s spiritually powerful.”

katies@catholicsentinel.org

How to help

To learn more about events and how to assist the Catholic Worker community, search for “Simone Weil House” on Facebook or contact simoneweilhouse@gmail.com or 574-213-5468. Donations can be made via checks to “In My Backyard,” 5311 NE 15th Ave., Portland, OR 97211, or through PayPal, paypal.me/InMyBackyard.

 


Dorothy Day in Oregon

Dorothy Day visited Oregon several times to spiritually rouse Catholics and others in the state. In 1940 she spoke to parish, labor and social groups as well as to students at various schools, including the University of Portland, St. Mary’s Academy and Central Catholic High School. During a trip in 1952, she gave a talk to high school and college students in Mount Angel and to guests at Blanchet House — founded that same year on principles of the Catholic Worker movement in Portland’s Old Town.

“She explained how the Catholic Workers embrace voluntary poverty in the realization that in serving others they are serving Christ Himself, and that to do so effectively they must develop the right attitude toward work and restore the communal aspect of family living,” read a Sentinel article on the Mount Angel talk.

Catholic Worker in the archdiocese

In 1952, Blanchet House of Hospitality, which drew from Catholic Worker ideals, was opened by graduates of the University of Portland. It continues to provide food, housing and clothing programs to those in need.

In the early 1970s, young social workers founded a politically active Catholic Worker house. It was in operation for a number of years and was located in various sites in Northeast and Southeast Portland. The house served meals and held thought-provoking forums. Members were involved in a variety of causes, such as the movement to ban nuclear submarines, and helped found St. Francis Dining Hall.

A Portland house again was established in the late 1990s to aid homeless women and children in the city. The most recent Catholic Worker house dissolved around 10 years ago.

Outside of Portland, there have been a handful of Catholic Worker communities in the state at different times. There’s currently the Francis and Clare House in Eugene, with about 12 residents and three Catholic workers.