Two days ago, on September 8, 2012, I attended an anniversary celebration in Boston, Massachussetts. It was the 40th anniversary of the official opening of Sancta Maria House, the first overnight shelter for homeless women in Boston.
The celebration took place in Holy Cross Cathedral in downtown Boston. There were about 200 people present, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley the Archbishop of Boston, and Mary McHale, the prime mover in acquiring the shelter 40 years ago.
The celebration consisted of a concelebrated Mass followed by sharing refreshments and memories in the community hall attached to the Cathedral. I was invited to the anniversary by Mary McHale because I was with her in the events which led up to the founding of the shelter.
In 1963 I was assigned to teach theology in one of the Boston colleges preparing young men for the priesthood. I had spent the previous 7 years as a missionary in the Philippines where I worked as spiritual advisor to the members of the Legion of Mary. The Legion of Mary is an organization which trains Catholic men and women to bring the message of God’s love to those who may not be aware of it.
When I was assigned to Boston to teach, I wanted to find an opportunity for pastoral work in the wider community, so I sought out the local Legion of Mary. At one of the coordinating meetings of the Legion I met Mary McHale. Together we formed two new groups of the Legion. One group was to staff a religious book-barrow Saturday afternoons on the street in Roxbury.
A few years later we formed a second group, composed entirely of women, to work at night in the “combat zone”. Their purpose was to seek out and befriend young women who were at risk, walking the streets in the hope of earning something by being engaged as an escort for the night.
This second group soon alerted us to our need for a house or a shelter. We needed a place to bring any of the women who were persuaded to leave the dangers of the “combat zone”. In 1970 I received a new overseas assignment, but Mary and the other members of the group continued on with their street work and also continued in their search for a suitable house. It was difficult to find a suitable place at a suitable price, and it might have proved impossible if divine providence had not intervened.
The Legion of Mary has a saying, “Every impossibility is divisible into 39 steps, each one of which is possible”. Just when it seemed impossible to get a suitable house at a suitable price, Mary McHale met one of the local landlords. In their conversation he told her he was getting too old for the business, and asked her if she knew anyone who wanted to buy a house. Mary told him she was in the market for a house, and he promptly offered her his house at a price that she and the Legion of Mary could afford. That was June 1972.
Within three months the house was ready, and on Friday September 8, 1972, it was blessed by Archbishop Medeiros and officially opened. Sancta Maria House declares as its mission to “Provide a safe haven each night for 10 women in need, a place where they know they will be treated with respect and courtesy. Sancta Maria House is a place to rest and renew body and soul in a home-like atmosphere, free of judgment”.
The House is managed by a Director and two women volunteers each night. This is the way the Sancta Maria House website (sanctamariahouse.org) describes itself: “Sancta Maria House is a safe place for homeless women in Boston, that provides everything for our guests – a light meal, a refreshing shower, a change of clothes, and a clean bed in which to have a peaceful night’s rest, safe from the dangers of the city’s streets”.
The house is available to guests from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. It is not a permanent residence for anyone, but rather an emergency shelter for 7 consecutive nights while guests are being helped to make provision for a more permanent place to stay
Since its opening in 1972, Sancta Maria House has provided overnight accommodation for more than 120,000 guests. This is a remarkable achievement considering that it depends entirely on private donations for its financial support. Tradesmen and construction companies have been generous in helping freely in the maintenance and repair of the building.
In a recent interview Mary McHale was asked if she had any favorite memories from Sancta Maria House. She replied that what gave her most joy was to see how the guests helped one another, and shared with one another. It was as if the kindness which they received at Sancta Maria House was contagious, and inspired them in turn to be kind to one another.
It gave me great pleasure to re-connect with the few remaining members of the original team, and to see how they are being replaced by members of the new generation of the Legion of Mary. Some of these new members were not even born when the original project began. Their active presence in this ongoing service is living proof that the seed sown in Boston more than 40 years ago continues to bear fruit today.