Emma Coley discusses a new community-based banking model during an Advent retreat at Holy Redeemer Church in North Portland. The economy “is where you kind of give up your values and submit yourself to it as an isolated individual,” Coley said in a recent interview. “But we have the resources for understanding this differently in our Catholic tradition.”  (Courtesy Bobby Alverez)
Emma Coley discusses a new community-based banking model during an Advent retreat at Holy Redeemer Church in North Portland. The economy “is where you kind of give up your values and submit yourself to it as an isolated individual,” Coley said in a recent interview. “But we have the resources for understanding this differently in our Catholic tradition.” (Courtesy Bobby Alverez)

It was a Friday afternoon near Christmas, and Bobby Alvarez, the newest staff member of Simone Weil Catholic Worker house, was driving back from Union Station, where he’d just dropped off a man named Michael.

A few months prior, Michael had come to Portland to spend time with his dying mother and attend her funeral. But since then he’d struggled to get back home to California. First he couldn’t afford the ticket, then he had trouble catching a bus on time while living at a shelter.

So, when he showed up on the house’s doorstep one December morning, Alvarez gave Michael a lift to the train station.

This readiness to reshuffle one’s plans to help another, the willingness to meet a need in a simple but significant way — they reflect the spirit of Portland’s growing Catholic Worker community.

“I’m trying to live an integrated life,” said 29-year-old Alvarez as he drove. “How do the tradition, the thoughts of the church form us? What does that look like in the 21st century? What does it look like in Portland?”

Creativity and God’s grace

Simone Weil Catholic Worker was established in 2019 by Bert Fitzgerald, a philosophical Catholic convert with ambitious plans. Two and a half years into the effort, much of Fitzgerald’s vision — tweaked and strengthened by supporters and residents — has materialized.

The Northeast Portland community serves as a house of hospitality to those in need and as a “public household” where the wider community can gather to share spiritual, intellectual and economic life.

It has grown from one rented house with four residents to two rental houses and 13 residents, including four intentional community staff members. The second property, named the Dorothy Day House, was acquired in February and is located across the street from the Simone Weil House.

Weil, a French philosopher and mystic who died in 1943, was intrigued by Catholicism and could be viewed as embracing views of the left and the right. “She had a love for tradition and limitless solidarity with the disenfranchised,” Fitzgerald told the Sentinel in 2019.

Fitzgerald, now 39, wanted the new Catholic Worker community to be a space where people from different ideologies work and pray together and where no one feels totally comfortable. 

Since the 1950s there’s been a handful of Catholic Worker houses in Portland, with the previous community dissolving more than a decade ago. This most recent iteration has gained momentum at the same time Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization was completed in the Archdiocese of New York and advanced to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Before her conversion to Catholicism, Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, worked in New York City as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, participated in protests, and forged friendships with famous artists and writers. She had multiple love affairs and an abortion.

After converting, Day’s passion for justice and concern for the poor and disenfranchised became expressions of Catholic social teaching boldly fulfilled. She co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper and initiated a movement of houses of hospitality and farming communities. Fiercely devout, Day was both an intellectual and roll-up-your-sleeves, creative doer.

Such qualities and charisms are evident in the Simone Weil community. Foremost it offers a home to formerly houseless individuals; it is not transitional housing and there is no timeline for moving out. The goal is not to solve every person’s problem or provide charity to the poor but to live in community with one another. Day wrote of Catholic Worker houses: “What we do is very little, but it’s like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest.” 

Jim Hannigan, Bobby Alvarez and Steven Faust construct an arbor this past fall for the Simone Weil Catholic Worker house. (Courtesy Simone Weil Catholic Worker)

A nonprofit called In My Backyard was established to help sustain the houses and their initiatives. Though some staff have part-time jobs, “we expect with grace and God’s providence to live day by day,” said Alvarez, who recently completed a master’s in theology at a Catholic university in Belgium.

One of the most ambitious projects is a community-based loan program (see sidebar). Started last spring as a pilot through Notre Dame Federal Credit Union, it provides 0% interest loans guaranteed within the community, preventing and redeeming interest-bearing debts. The initiative currently is composed of individuals with ties to the Simone Weil House, but staff are in the process of expanding it into local parishes.

Among other creative endeavors: Simone Weil has two tiny homes on its grounds and recently moved a resident into its first lease-to-own mobile tiny house, valued at $15,000.

Emma Coley, a graduate of Princeton University who joined the staff last year, said the goal is to give someone with a modest fixed income the otherwise elusive opportunity of home ownership. It additionally will serve as a template for homeowners interested in hosting a tiny house for someone in need.

Also on Simone Weil House grounds are a clothing rack, food pantry and fridge. They operate much like a free little library, where passersby can select or donate books.

“There are a good number of neighbors who participate in both directions,” said Fitzgerald. “People have even brought over dishes like rice and beans and stir fry to the fridge and it’s been able to sustain itself. I’ve almost been surprised at how well it works.”  

In the backyard of the Simone Weil House is a new composting toilet. Designed with a classic outhouse look, it reduces water use and promotes a more productive soil. The house has only one bathroom, located on the second floor, so the ground-level composting toilet is a more accessible option for multiple residents with disabilities.

In its role as a public household, Simone Weil holds regular dinners, mini-retreats and game nights open to the public, and offers weekly virtual seminars led by scholars from across the county. Past seminars were structured around Leo Tolstoy’s short fiction and Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.”

Most neighbors are supportive of the Catholic Worker community, but there have been challenges in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. As a high-end duplex was erected across from the Dorothy Day House, developers filed a code complaint against the house and sent a threatening letter to the residents’ landlord. Ultimately the community needed to get rid of one of its tiny houses.

Staff also are learning the difficult task of asking residents to leave when necessary.

“If there’s a big risk factor, they could radically destabilize the community,” Fitzgerald said.

Future goals include welcoming more intentional community staff members and purchasing a house. “Owning a house would provide stability to the community,” said 25-year-old Coley. “We could live with less anxiety and could use the spaces more creatively.” 

In front of the Simone Weil House is a free food pantry and fridge, where items are used and replaced by neighbors. (Courtesy Simone Weil Catholic Worker)

Simple, not easy

At the Dorothy Day and Simone Weil houses, prayer organizes days punctuated by the unpredictable. Staff members join a livestream of the Benedictine monks at Mount Angel two to three times daily for Liturgy of the Hours, “sharing in a rhythm larger than we are,” Fitzgerald said.

Alvarez acknowledged that of course the Catholic Worker lifestyle comes with complications and tricky situations. He recalled a recent potluck to which friends showed up as did a woman who was drunk. “We offered her hospitality, gave her food and then she curled up on the couch and fell asleep,” said Alvarez. “Everyone left at the end of the night and we wondered: ‘Now what do we do?’” Staff ended up finding her a shelter and helped her to a bus stop.

“Although living where you work means you don’t have as much independence as you might sometimes want, I’ve learned to find a lot of freedom in that,” Alvarez said. “Once you let go and are receptive to what’s in front of you, you aren’t bound by even the self in some ways. Yes, sometimes it just sucks and it’s hard, but when it’s clicking it’s an amazing thing.”

While their lifestyle appears radical in many ways, the Catholic Worker staff believe much of what they do can be replicated by others.

“I appreciate that even as Simone Weil has grown a lot in terms of the number of people, it’s still a glorified household structure,” said Fitzgerald. “We don’t have a shower or laundry program, but people can use our shower or washing machine. The tiny house, the free fridge — I hope these and other things we are doing are at a scale and level that could inspire others.”

Many people have excess food, clothes or space, added Alvarez. “Sharing with neighbors is something available to all of us. I sometimes get in trouble for saying, ‘Just do the thing,’ as if it’s that easy. It requires preparing and an openness to God’s grace and will. But at the end of the day, it is a step toward a relationship with someone else. That’s Dorothy Day’s vision, and it’s very simple if not easy.”

To participate

For information on how to support Simone Weil Catholic Worker or join in a meal, retreat or other event, go to simoneweilhouse.org.