The following was written by Rene Voillaume on Good Friday, 1948. It is part of his meditations on the “Way of the Cross.”
With the Cross, Christ Jesus, You have taken into Your charge the whole of mankind, with all the weight of its weaknesses and woes and sins and death. Such is Your love for us; such is Your obedience to Your Father.
To have accepted this suffering and this death was alone a mysterious and terrible agony, so great was the contradiction of it with the wholeness and purity of Your nature.
For us, it should be different. But, in the name of Your courage and in the name of Your love, we can only beg for the light by which to discern and face our cross, the cross prepared for us by You, the cross You have fitted to each one’s very being, woven into the fabric and movement of each of our lives.
Teach us to see it as an instrument of redemption, and show us how to take hold of it.
Rene Voillaume (1905-2003) was one of the first disciples of Charles de Foucauld. In 1933, with four companions he founded the Little Brothers of Jesus.
The picture shows Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the traditional path that Jesus walked on the way to His crucifixion. Sister and members of her community made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1985.
As the Joseph House is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, we are taking a look back at some moments in its history. This post is about the first home of the Joseph House, the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Baltimore.
When Sr. Mary Elizabeth began the Joseph House as layperson in October of 1965, her circumstances were quite humble. She was alone, had no money, no support, and no place to go. That changed after she met a Vincentian priest, Fr. Donald Knox. He was pastor of the Immaculate Conception on the corner of Mosher Street and Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.
Fr. Knox welcomed Sister and her vision of ministering to the poor. He said she could set up shop in the rectory basement, although it had not been used in some time and was due for a cleaning. That did not deter Sister. She found a volunteer whitewash crew, a desk salvaged from the trash, and she was ready to begin her work.
The Immaculate has a long history, and it has been described as the poorest Catholic Church in Baltimore. Nevertheless, as a sign of the generosity of grace it provided a home for the fledgling Joseph House.
It seems appropriate that Sister’s work started in a basement, like a seed underground, and took shape within a parish named in honor of Mary as a pure creation of grace. That sounds like the workings of Providence. Seedlings are delicate: the Immaculate gave Sr. Mary Elizabeth the time she needed to solidify her aspirations. The generosity of Fr. Knox was especially helpful.
After a few months the basement was too small, and the Joseph House ministry moved “above ground” and into a new place on McCulloh Street.
Rafael Alvarez, in his book, First and Forever: The Archdiocese of Baltimore – A People’s History, tells the history of the Immaculate:
Administered by the Vincentians since its founding and established in 1850, Immaculate Conception was dedicated on September 21, 1851 to the Blessed Mother. At first a two-story brick building with a ‘well-lighted basement’ on Mosher Street, it is the first parish in the United States to bear the title of ‘Immaculate Conception.’
At the time of its construction on Mosher and Ross Streets, now Druid Hill Park, the area was considered rural, and with the exception of St. Mary’s Chapel on Paca Street, it was the only Catholic Church in northwest Baltimore.
By 1854 then-pastor Rev. Joseph Guistinianni realized the church’s need to expand, and in June the corner stone for the second church structure was laid. Three years later, Archbishop Kenrick consecrated the new, larger church where Father Guistinianni served for 32 years.
An earlier history of Baltimore, written by John Thomas Scharf in 1881, fills in a few details about the interior:
Many important improvements have been made to the church from time to time. Stained-glass windows have been added, the sanctuary adorned with some of Costagiani’s paintings, and a beautiful marble altar rail placed in position. The edifice is one hundred and thirty feet in length, seventy feet wide, and fifty- two feet high from floor to ceiling.
This second church that was built was the one that Sr. Mary Elizabeth knew. It was torn down in 1973, an act that Carleton Jones mourns in his book, Lost Landmarks of Baltimore:
Shamelessly destroyed in a deal between the church and the short-term needs of a hospital, the Immaculate Conception Church was the finest example of Tuscan Baroque in the city. But in 1973 it was simply another marooned ecclesiastical masterpiece, though impeccable inside and sweepingly moving without.
In 1994, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was twinned with St. Cecilia’s on Windsor Avenue, another parish served by the Vincentians. Alvarez notes that the Immaculate “remains vibrant, operating a variety of community outreach programs that serve the needy, ex-offenders, and recovering addicts.” A program for the latter is now housed in the former rectory.
The recollections of Sr. Mary Elizabeth about her time at the Immaculate can be found in our October 2015 Newsletter.
The feast day for the Immaculate Conception is December 8.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist and social activist. She co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, which carries on her dedication to peace and the works of mercy.
When Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress on September 24, 2015, he spoke about Dorothy as an example of someone who worked to build a better future and who shaped the fundamental values of the American people:
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Of Dorothy’s many attractive qualities, there is one that stands out: she practiced what she preached. She loved the poor, she lived with the poor, and she lived as a poor person herself. She once wrote:
“The solution proposed… in the Gospels, is that of voluntary poverty and the works of mercy. It is the little way. It is within the power of all. Everybody can begin here and now…We have the greatest weapons in the world, greater than any hydrogen or atom bomb, and they are the weapons of poverty and prayer, fasting and alms, the reckless spending of ourselves in God’s service and for His poor. Without poverty we will not have learned love, and love, at the end, is the measure by which we shall be judged.”
Sr. Mary Elizabeth, our foundress, met Dorothy in 1966 when they were both invited to speak at the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. This is Sister’s recollection of Dorothy:
“That’s where I met her personally, but I had known about her and read about her because in my younger days as a nurse I had worked with the Catholic Worker in Baltimore when it first started. I volunteered there for a short time while I was doing my studies at Mercy Hospital. So I knew about Dorothy and read about her and admired her very much. When she came to Loyola to speak I invited her to the house and she came. But my first meeting with her was at Wernersville.
“I admired her ability to live completely with the poor, and to share with them absolutely anything and everything she had. She never kept anything for herself alone. She was the poorest person I think I’ve ever met. Wherever they have a Catholic Worker house around Washington or Baltimore they always had a room for Dorothy, but Dorothy insisted that her room be used for the poor when she was not there. So many times when she would arrive from somewhere – if they didn’t know ahead of time – there was already a poor person sleeping in her room and she slept in somebody else’s bed. And if you knew Dorothy’s houses at that point in history, that was not like ‘I’ll sleep in your bed tonight,’ because a lot of those beds were wet in over and over again, and they smelled of urine terribly, and Dorothy would just go lay in one as if it were her own.
“She was the most selfless person I think I’ve ever heard of, and I really admired that tremendously. She was so detached. A very detached person. Except from her opinions, which she had a right to stand up for. But she was extremely detached. And very humble. But she did have a temper. I saw her one night put a priest in his place because he was speaking against the teachings of the Church. She really put him right where he belonged. She could handle any argument, anyone. But as I say she was simply, totally unattached to herself.
“The same thing came up when she spoke at Loyola. She was a controversial figure so they did have bouncers, so to speak, for her talk. And they almost had to use them because one man stood up. I think these people were sent by her enemies to talk out loud and heckle her.
“And so this guy stood up and said was it true that she had been arrested on a morals charge at one time. And she said ‘Yes, it’s true.’ But she said, ‘Worse than that.’
“And he said, ‘What?’
“And she said ‘I just remembered I have two coats in my closet at home and I can only use one.’ Which really carried a big message with it.
“And I thought, ‘God, isn’t she admirable?’ To say a thing like that in public, and not to defend herself on the morals charge whatsoever, but just simply to say yes, that she just remembered that she had two winter coats at home in the closet and she could only wear one. She just was a woman of principle, at any expense to herself whatsoever. Never did she come first, she was always last in whatever God’s cause was. So that’s why I admired her. I certainly don’t have her virtues, but I admire them.”
On Dorothy’s visit to the Joseph House in May 1966:
“She came, and knowing how poor she lived, and knowing that certainly I was not rich in any way shape or form, but knowing also that she lived in this total disorder and total untidiness, and I at that point in life was very tidy, because I had the energy to be tidy, I was worried because my place looked nice even though it was very poor. And I thought, ‘Is she going to think that I don’t care about poverty?’ I was really concerned that maybe she would be offended by that. And when she walked in the front door I had a little classroom on the side in what would be the living room, and they had desks and chairs and a little library, and that’s of course what she saw first. So I thought, ‘Well, I wonder what she’s going to think?’
“And she looked at it and looked at it and she looked around and she said, ‘I would give my right arm to have a place like this.’ [laughter] So I breathed easy. Yes, she was really a wonderful woman.
“So she gave us a talk that night in one of the classrooms. We had a classroom upstairs. And she went to Mass. And when it was over, I had put her in one of the back bedrooms where she would be quiet. All my things were very poor, and she had a little poor rocking chair with no arms on it. And so I went back to see if she wanted anything before she retired, and she was sitting in the little rocking chair in her night gown, and rocking back and forth and preparing for the Mass in the morning. She was reading the prayers of the Mass for the next morning and was preparing for that.
“She really was a very holy person. Extremely holy, very prayerful and just. Justice was a big thing with her. And justice was a big thing with me and I think that’s another reason I liked her so much. I didn’t fear poverty as much as I feared injustice for the poor.”
Our convent in Salisbury, Maryland is in a neighborhood called Newtown. It’s named this because many of the houses were built in the aftermath of two devastating fires that swept through the community, one in 1860 and the other in 1886. We’ve seen photographs of our street after one of the infernos: only the chimneys and blackened tree trunks were left standing. Today, mature leafy trees and vibrant flower gardens frame the Victorian homes. Nature and time have erased the wounds.
We like the historical character of our neighborhood. Up the street from us is the Poplar Hill Mansion; completed in 1805, it is the oldest home in Salisbury. Down the street is the Chipman Cultural Center, the oldest African-American church building on the Delmarva Peninsula. Historians believe that before the church was built in 1838, local slaves congregated on that patch of land for Sunday morning worship services. We can only imagine the cries to Heaven that once filled the air. They were only a few blocks away from the mansion, but separated by a great divide.
The house we call our convent also holds some history. We once discovered, behind our basement wall, receipts from a hardware store going back to 1891. Other traces of past ownership were clear from the beginning. When Sr. Mary Elizabeth purchased the property in 1978, the previous residents had been a group of young people. They left behind walls painted black adorned with rock and roll posters! But nothing, least of all that, could ever faze Sister. The house was big enough for the community of sisters she envisioned and that was the most important consideration.
All in all, what we like best about our neighborhood are the people who live there. Our friendships with some of our neighbors can now be measured in decades. It’s like living on the same street with members of our extended family. There are bonds of trust and support that keep us going, which in turn help to keep the Joseph House going. The variety of people living in Newtown makes it a real patchwork quilt, and we feel very blessed to hold down our square on the corner of North Poplar Hill Avenue and Isabella Street.
Nevertheless, the sad fact remains: a city of neighborhoods is often a city of barriers. The situation is true no matter where in the country one may live, or what country one may live in. There’s always a part of town that is on the “wrong side of the tracks,” places that aren’t safe after dark, or where the people are different or have different ways. Unwritten laws inform people not to mix. Some localities may just as well have walls built around them. In fact, some of them do.
Whether real or imaginary, these walls can do more than separate people. They’re also good at hiding things, especially things we don’t want to see, such as poverty and injustice. And the invisible walls are just as effective at doing this as any other.
Our local paper once published a front page story, complete with a map, that highlighted the section of Salisbury burdened with high levels of prostitution, drug dealing, and gun violence. Only the busy commercial strip of Route 13 divides that neighborhood from ours.
Fault lines like this are common throughout America. Our faith tells us to cross them, not avoid them.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the gospel of Luke, the rich man lives contentedly behind a gate, unaware that poor Lazarus is starving on the other side. The rich man never deliberately harms Lazarus, he simply ignores him. He lives his life as if Lazarus did not exist. He could have shared something with Lazarus and never even missed it.
What would have happened if the rich man had stepped outside his gate and opened his eyes? A little kindness on his part would have meant everything to Lazarus.
Borders, boundaries, walls, fences, gates… they have their place. But they limit our horizon and it is easy to get used to the view.
One must be especially careful about building them around the human heart. What was built out of fear, anger, hurt, or ignorance can have unintended consequences. C.S. Lewis wrote these memorable lines in his book, The Four Loves:
If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
Crossing boundaries can expand our world in more ways than one. During a period when he was searching for answers, the spiritual father of the Joseph House, Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), made a trek deep into the Sahara desert. He later wrote about his impressions:
Islam really shook me to the core. The sight of such faith, of these people living in the continual presence of God, made me glimpse something greater, truer, than worldly concerns. I started studying Islam, then the Bible.
If only we could inspire one another this way all the time. Each encounter with the “other” can be a gift. There is so much to learn, so much to gain, as we journey together to the place prepared for everyone, the place Jesus called “My Father’s house.” (John 14:2)
To walk forward, we place one foot in front of the other. The walk toward social justice in the world requires the same effort.
Two feet are needed for this movement: one is “Direct Service” and the other is “Social Change.” Both are needed to achieve justice, both are needed to stay balanced.
Direct Service addresses the needs of people here and now. When a person is suffering, when he or she is cold, hungry, or homeless, we cannot tell that person to wait. Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the founder of the Joseph House, once said, “If a man comes in and tells you he has no job and hasn’t eaten in two days, you don’t give an in-depth analysis of his socio-economic hang-ups. You give him a bag of groceries and a dollar if you have it. If you don’t have a dollar, you keep asking people you know until someone gives it to you.”
There are many ways we can directly serve the needs of the poor. Here are a few examples that call for our support:
food drives and food banks
instruction on tenant rights
transportation for the sick and elderly
job skills training
Social Change involves changing structures and removing the causes of poverty and other social problems. This type of work seeks to educate people and bring them together. Its action must be non-violent; otherwise, there is the risk of replacing one oppressor with another.
Here are ways to work for social change:
read about and critically evaluate the issues
register to vote and then vote
through letter writing and boycotts, change corporate policies that hurt the poor
participate in peaceful protests to help give voice to the voiceless
write to legislators on behalf of the poor and marginalized
use public forums (letters to the editor, social media) to educate others about the needs of the poor and the reality they face
The goals of social justice are to reduce poverty, protect human rights, and promote peace. We can only make this journey using “both feet.” In all that we do, the advice of St. Paul will serve us well: “Conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
The photograph shows the sandals that belonged to Sr. Mary Elizabeth. She left them pretty worn out in her work for justice.
Here is a story from our founder, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling, about her discernment to leave the Little Sisters of the Poor and begin a new ministry with the poor. Pictured above is the promise she professed to God after starting the Joseph House as a layperson.
“I felt that if God asked me to go in [the Little Sisters of the Poor], I left the other things I was doing to go, so if He asked me to come out I should come out. I was 50 years old when I came to that conclusion [in 1964]. And I had been in there for about 21 years.
“I had this confessor who was of a French order also so he was kind of the same culture mind as I was trying to escape. And I went to him and said that I really feel God is calling me to leave here and to go and work with the poor where they are, and not have them come in and only be able to handle this small number because we had to have them come in to help them. And he said, ‘I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t have much time today to hear confessions. I just don’t want to hear about it.’ So I thought I guess God doesn’t want to hear about it either.
“I waited for a while. In fact, I waited for almost five years. I was so troubled by it, I was so pushed by some force to leave there and start something myself. I had no idea how to do it or when to do it or how I was going to go about it. But I had this impulse that I couldn’t seem to overcome and I got tired of battling with it. So I said to the Lord, ‘Look, I’ll do anything You want me to do but I have to know that You want me to do it and I want You to at least give me the assurance that this is something You want and not just something that I dreamed of.’ So I kind of put Him to the test.
“I went to confession to the same priest who told me he didn’t want to hear about it, and that gave me a kind of safety because I said to myself I am not looking up someone who agrees with me, I am not going outside of here to find someone who I think will find these nuns old-fashioned and agree that I should go. I am going to the same guy who told me he doesn’t want to hear about it. I went back to Father and I said to him, ‘I talked to you about five years ago about the fact that I think God is calling me to leave here and to go work with the poor differently.’
“And before I went to him I went up to the altar rail and I said to the Lord, ‘Look I have to settle this, I can’t stay here unsettled like this. I am going to give You 5 minutes to get him ready for me and to give him the answer that You want him to have for me and then I am going in there and I am going to ask him does he think I should do this or doesn’t he. And whatever he tells me to do I am going to do and I don’t want to hear from You again.’ [laughter]
“And so I waited and then I went back to confession and I said to him that I had been there 5 years before and he said, ‘Yes, I remember that.’
“And I said, ‘I really feel God is calling me to leave and to start something that would take care of the poor where they are. Because you could do a lot more for them, and it is not necessary for them to give up what they have.’
“And he said to me, ‘Well I think God is calling you to that.’
“And I thought, ‘Now why did he have to say that? Now I have to.’ [laughter]
“And I am thinking of all of this stuff, ‘Now what do I do? What do I do?’”
Always say yes to God and He will fill you with His happiness.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling was very deliberate in choosing the names of the two organizations she founded.
The Joseph House was named in honor of St. Joseph. Sister said that if God trusted Joseph to care for Mary and Jesus, then she could trust him, too. She always referred to St. Joseph as our provider and protector.
The name of the religious community Sr. Mary Elizabeth founded was also carefully chosen. In her words:
“The beautiful name God has given us of ‘Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary’ should be the explanation of our lives. We must become true ‘little sisters’ of Jesus present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in the world and present in the Eucharist. We must look to our Mother and older Sister Mary as a model of how to live with our brother and Lord Jesus. And in company of Joseph and Mary our lives should be directed towards and emanate from the Eucharistic Jesus who lives in our midst.”