Clustered among a line of brick row buildings in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill, the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House stands as a beacon amid the suffering and brokenness that can besiege those who live in the neighborhood, deemed among the largest pocket of poverty in central Pennsylvania.
The house – one among a block of dilapidated and abandoned buildings two decades ago – today shows its age and wear, but what it might lack in curb appeal, it more than makes up for in its mission and its impact on the area’s residents.
Here, the corporal works of mercy flow.
“We plug ourselves in to the needs of the people of Allison Hill, to put mercy into action,” said Naed Smith, the manager of the Catholic Worker House and a familiar face around its Market Street locales, working to be a neighborly presence.
“The need is overwhelming – poverty, drugs, violence – but we try to do what we can with the resources that we have,” he told The Catholic Witness.
The house is an outreach of the Catholic Worker Movement, an effort begun in 1933 by journalist Dorothy Day and philosopher Peter Maurin, who published The Catholic Worker newspaper to promote justice and mercy.
The movement is committed to the life and dignity of every human being, and to nonviolence and works of mercy. “Houses of Hospitality,” like the Catholic Worker House in Harrisburg, have developed from the movement as a means of sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for those with addictions. Today, there are 228 Catholic Worker Houses around the world.
“We put ourselves into the community’s situations of suffering and brokenness, to work to affect change,” Mr. Smith said.
He’s been a part of the Catholic Worker House since its inception in the mid-1990s. Its roots stem from the efforts of Father Daniel Mitzel, former pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which is located directly across the street from the house. With the parish’s longstanding daily soup kitchen and the earnest efforts of a few men in recovery from addiction, the house quickly became a place of help and hope.
The block at that time was two-thirds abandoned buildings and a derelict lot, with a second abandoned lot behind the house littered with deserted cars, mattresses and liquor bottles. The properties would eventually be sold to the Housing Authority, HUD and the city of Harrisburg, and a government project assisted with the block’s rehabilitation.
On Nov. 3, 1996, the Catholic Worker House was officially dedicated on the feast of its patron, St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), who lived his life meagerly to care for the hungry and the ill in his home of Lima, Peru.
In its ministry, the Catholic Worker House has been a place of welcoming resettled people from Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services, and has also worked to deliver unsold produce from a local farmers’ market to residents of Allison Hill.
Through a Greenbelt Initiative, the house adopted the abandoned lot, transforming it into a green space with flowers, trees and a bench for respite – a reminder of the call to care for creation.
The house itself continues to offer a safe space for men who are recovering from addiction or who were recently released from prison. In order to stay there, they are required to either have a job or work in service for the house. Recently, a resident began renovation of one of the last two derelict properties on the block, and he also does minor repair work for homes in the neighborhood. A doctor lived at the Catholic Worker House for a year and a half to introduce a “Cure Violence” program, teaching conflict resolution skills.
Others involved in the work of the house have participated in prayer vigils in response to violence in the city, and are involved with the Pax Christi peace movement and the cooperative Interfaith Alliance in Harrisburg.
Since the establishment of the house 20 years ago, a number of faith- and community-based operations have set up services on the block in an effort to revitalize the community. These ministries include the Joshua Group and Learning Center for Youth, which supports at-risk youth through educational and vocational opportunities; the Silence of Mary Home, which provides a family environment and services for those in need; the Shalom House, a temporary shelter for women and children; Cifelli House for men in recovery or coming out of prison; the Common Ground, which offers breakfast and community hours; and Heart of the Community Church, which offers dinner on a routine basis.
The various groups have been working together in a type of shared ministry for the neighborhood and its people.
“Allison Hill is the largest pocket of poverty in central Pennsylvania, and thus an area of great need,” said Rick Woodard, Board Chair of the Catholic Worker House.
Eleven years ago, he established the Allison Hill Fund, which helps support the efforts of the ministries there.
“Before the fund, we were 11 faith-based groups in ministry, but we didn’t have a connection. Now, we meet quarterly to connect, offer referrals, and to plan services like free computer classes and help with housing and food,” Mr. Woodard said.
“While we haven’t eradicated poverty and violence in Allison Hill, we have had success with feeding the hungry, providing furniture, and getting young people out of gangs and graduating from high school,” he said.
The shared ministry of the Allison Hill Fund has helped the Catholic Worker House to continue its mission of mercy, Mr. Smith remarked.
“It’s a network of looking out for one another and witnessing to what we’re called to be as a society, especially for those who are most vulnerable in our communities,” he said. “We need to be a voice for the vulnerable and the people on the fringe of society – those who live in poverty, those who are discriminated against, those who suffer from addiction.”
Living and serving at the Catholic Worker House is a vocation for Mr. Smith, who was first attracted to the Catholic Worker Movement while studying sociology and theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
“When you’re called to a vocation, you respond, or you end up like Jonah and wash up on the shore,” he said.
“Incarnating the reality of what’s going on in the world is what the Catholic Worker House is all about,” he said.
(For information on the efforts of the Catholic Worker House and how to help, contact the house at 717-831-2642. For additional information on the international Catholic Worker Movement, visit www.catholicworker.org.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness