A Leap of Faith: Charism of Charity Alive at Federation House of Charity
By Erin Reder
Thirteen years ago, S. Monica Gundler began a new journey. She left Cincinnati, Ohio, and headed south to New Orleans, Louisiana, as one of the founding members of the House of Charity (HOC), a collaborative ministry of the Sisters of Charity Federation rooted in hospitality, prayer, and service. She never could have imagined in 2010 the impact this small, humble ministry would make on the hundreds of people who have visited and the many more in and around New Orleans who have benefitted from the Sisters’ presence.
What brought S. Monica to New Orleans over a decade ago? “I felt like my heart was there before my body got there,” she recalls. “It was a very unique place, on the margins. There would always be work to do, and I wanted to be part of something that we initiated as a Federation. It was an opportunity to keep community alive, and I was passionate about it – even though it was a leap of faith.”
The collaboration of Federation Sisters has been key to the house’s success. Back in 2010 S. Monica was joined by Federation Sisters Renee Rose, DC, and Claire Regan, SCNY, and they began to determine how the HOC would operate and what they wanted to focus their energy and efforts on. While Sisters Claire, Renee and Monica didn’t know each other prior to moving in together, they worked hard to stay true to the mission: creating a place of renewal for Sisters in terms of mission; a place where young adults could come for an experience of community and to deepen their faith; and a place of service to the family of New Orleans.
A Place of Sisterhood
In the years since its inception, the House of Charity has been a place for Federation Sisters to come and serve. “I think any Sister who has visited has found it an energizing place, a hopeful place and a prayerful place,” says S. Monica. Calling it a bonding experience for guests, S. Monica explains staying at the HOC has allowed Sisters opportunities to connect in ways they couldn’t at a large gathering or conference. There’s time for conversations over breakfast or dinner, at a work site and through deep, powerful prayer experiences.
S. Theresa Kramer’s, SC Halifax, first visit to the House of Charity was in October 2011. S. Monica invited a group of Sisters of Charity of Halifax down for a weekend of prayer and clean-up. One month later S. Theresa returned for Nuns Build, an initiative started with the St. Bernard Project to help with the rebuilding efforts in the city.
“At that time, we had four different communities come together to clean up after Hurricane Katrina. Each morning, before setting out to work, we prayed together as one ‘Sister of Charity.’ I soon learned we are all about the same mission. We worked hard all day as one group and laughed most of the time doing work we had never done before. This sharing and laughter has turned into more than 11 years of close friendships with all who participated.”
From the House of Charity’s beginnings, Sisters partnered with the St. Bernard Project for Nuns Build, an initiative to help with the rebuilding efforts in the city.
S. Theresa continued, “In the evenings we came together to share our highs and lows of the day. Did we meet our goals? Did we give love or was more love given to us by the beautiful people of New Orleans? We went for an hour or so each night on these goals and soon knew we were all on the same page as Sisters of Charity. I loved praying and sharing with the Sisters of the other communities. I believe it was why I loved returning.” And it is why groups of Sisters continue to travel to New Orleans for Nuns Build each year.
Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Sally Duffy has participated in multiple Nuns Builds. She adds, “Nuns Build is a concrete example of the House of Charity living a ministry of service and hospitality to both the community of New Orleans and to Sisters and volunteers. Faith and prayer are always intentional, meaningful and essential components of the hospitality experienced at the House of Charity. Our day begins with morning prayer and reflection in the chapel. Prayers of thanksgiving are part of every meal at the volunteer sites. Sunday Mass at St. Jude’s near the French Quarter is truly a joyful celebration of keeping alive the memory of Jesus, and receiving Eucharist to share with others.”
A Place of Prayer and Community
Sisters living at the HOC are committed to providing a comprehensive experience to all guests who visit. Each Sister has her own role. S. Monica typically is the tour guide, showing visitors the city, organizing their days and work, and accompanying them to the work site. Everybody’s gifts are different, she says. Someone might excel at relating with the guests, helping them process their day or chatting about a particular subject or event that occurred. While others might enjoy cooking and caring for the guests inside the house.
They’ve mastered the art of welcome and hospitality, and have come to a familiar routine. Prayer is deeply embedded in the experience, with guests and Sisters gathering at various times throughout the day. Evening prayer is led by a new person every night. S. Monica adds they are welcome to do so in their own native language or faith tradition. “That’s been a big part of our spiritual component,” she says. “We are Catholic Sisters and come from that tradition but also want to honor everyone’s faith traditions.”
S. Maryanne Ruzzo, SC Halifax, elaborates, “When we were dreaming about the House of Charity, I’m not sure I would have imagined that it would become what it is today. So many young people have journeyed through the house over these years and have left different persons. On the last evening, during faith sharing, often we would have them share how this experience has touched them. I found myself in tears listening to them. I will never forget one student who had participated in several service programs in other places said this was the first time that she was actually ‘allowed’ to talk about how God touched her through this experience. Young people of different religious traditions or ‘none’ were able to share where they saw the face of God or ‘love’ through the House of Charity. The hope was to share the charism of Charity through service, prayer, the community and one another. I would say that the Charity Charism is alive there and lives on in those who have journeyed there. They experienced that God is love and so did I.”
The community aspect and reflection are so important as the group has the opportunity to process together the day and what it means to their lives beyond that particular week. And it’s not just about the work; some nights the groups will play cards or games they brought with them, and usually one night during their stay, S. Monica takes them out on the town to visit City Park, taste a beignet, or immerse themselves in the culture and sounds of New Orleans.
A Place of Service
Service is at the heart of the HOC mission. Thirteen years ago Federation Sisters saw the extreme need – education, health care, rebuilding efforts – and were called to serve the people of New Orleans. Whether it’s rebuilding homes, serving the elderly, or parish work, the experiences of service provide moments to talk with the people of New Orleans, hear their stories and gain an understanding and appreciation of their hardships and their immense gratitude and perseverance.
S. Monica never hesitates to introduce visitors to the many friends she has met over the years. People like Burnell Cotlon, who started a grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward. “Burnell has always been inspiring and welcoming to all of our guests at the House of Charity,” she says. “His commitment to his community and desire to be of service are a great witness to all who have stayed with us and spent time with him.”
Those permanently living at the house have all become a presence in the community through accompaniment; whether it be outreach to mothers who lost their children to violence, participating in peace walks, assisting with a basketball league for at-risk children, or serving as an advocate on boards and committees. And new needs continue to emerge. S. Monica describes the importance of their presence in the community. “We have always been their cheerleaders. We have been able to use our resources for the poor, whether it be physically, emotionally or financially. We’re not a force of nature, but we support in various capacities. We have tried to make a difference in the city.”
As the one HOC constant throughout the years, S. Monica has seen many arrivals and departures. She’s enjoyed friendships formed with all who have committed years of service to the house, including Sisters Renee and Claire, Mary Lex Smith, SCL, Vicki Lichtenauer, SCL, Peg Johnson, SCL, Kelly O’Mahoney, SCN, and current residents Patty Huffman, DC, and Bev Hoffman, SCL. Collaboration and companionship with women religious from other communities has brought a richness to the experience as well. “We were welcomed by other Sisters in New Orleans and have become a gathering spot for Sisters living and ministering in the area,” she said. “If we have a party, the Ursulines and Notre Dames and St. Joseph Sisters come and it’s an intersection for all of them. There are Daughters of Charity in the city and our card games and conversations are much fuller because we are from different places. I think there’s a lot about that connection with the broader sisterhood that’s really enriching.”
Being a continued, committed presence is key. As part of the greater faith community in the city, Sisters living at the HOC have helped to make a better quality of life for those living there.
Adds S. Theresa, “I am hoping and praying the House of Charity continues on for many more years. My days are over because of age. But I must say being at the house with the Sisters and people of New Orleans were my happiest moments in life. Now, my job is to pray and encourage other young people and Sisters to join in this beautiful and energizing mission.”
What would S. Monica say to a Sister considering this ministry? “Come and see. Come spend some time and learn what we do. Be open and ready for an adventure.”