The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Meet The Nuns Who Are Preparing Their West Ridge Home To Take In Syrian Refugees

By Chicagoist_Guest in News on Dec 1, 2015 7:40PM

The house in West Ridge/handout photo.

By Tony Boylan

Three nuns living in West Ridge plan to take in a Syrian refugee family not just with the blessing of their local community, but at its urging.

Despite Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's decision last month to join a number of other state governors in vowing to make it tougher for Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. in the wake of a recent terrorist attack on Paris, these women are preparing their home to make life a little easier for a refugee family.

The sisters, part of the Society of Helpers, live in a historic home once owned by the Dr. Scholl’s Family with a finished basement they in the process of turning into a family apartment. The Society is an international order with progressive values based on the teachings of St. Ignatius. In other words, they get their hands dirty working with lots of issues other people of faith aren’t always quick to embrace; the homeless, addicts, teenage mothers, domestic violence and those most in need of support and assistance.

From their mission statement: “As contemplatives in action, we don’t just pray for social justice and for peace - we make it our life’s work.’’

Putting their faith in action, the sisters moved swiftly to ready themselves to provide shelter to a refugee family they think could be with them as soon as January. Political leaders can debate and demagogue on the issue all they’d like, but the sisters don’t care about that. Their faith declares what it declares,they say, and offering help is their faith.

“We would rather not make our decision on fear, we would rather make our decision on compassion,’’ said Sister Mary Ellen Moore, a registered psychologist and one of three nuns who lives in the house. “We were certainly disappointed in Gov. Rauner’s statement on this issue. That kind of mentality if frightening and we know what it’s led to in Europe and in other places in the past. It’s really very sad.’’

The plan predates the attacks in Paris, which have somehow been blamed on refugees—the same people trying to flee the horrific powers behind the carnage. The nuns and the members of St. Gertrude’s parish in Edgewater took to heart the Pope’s call for every congregation in America to help ease the international crisis and find a way to accommodate refugees.

The sisters do find it important to note that this isn’t an entirely free ride. Refugee families from Syria, or anywhere else, are required as part of their status to obtain work almost immediately after getting settled. Catholic Charities will assist them with that. The family will also be asked to contribute something for electricity and other utilities in due time, and after a store of donated food is exhausted, the family will rely on its own income and some help from charity for food.

In this case, though, a family couldn’t ask for hosts more qualified and prepared to help them assimilate. And the sisters think the multicultural nature of their neighborhood—near Devon Avenue and Loyola University—will be helpful.

Members of the parish, where the sisters attend church, but have no official attachment, almost immediately began collecting donations of money, furniture, bedding, kitchen supplies, and all the mundane things a family starting over with nothing might need to get by. (There still is a need for everything except clothing, which will wait until they know who is coming and can collect items appropriate to ages and size. Any help is appreciated and can be donated through either the Society of Helpers Facebook Page or website.

It’s not as if the parishioners or sisters are entering into this without thinking through any potential risks. It’s just that they know the risks are being wildly overstated and their mission is clear.

A letter written by parishioner John Neafsey was circulated among church members recently read, in part:

“Security concerns are understandable in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. But our understanding is that there is already a thorough and lengthy screening process in place for checking the backgrounds of refugees (agreed upon between the UNHCR and host countries, including the U.S.) prior to approving them for resettlement to the United States.
We believe that an arbitrary refusal to allow Syrian refugees to come to our state is unnecessary, unfair, and un-Christian. This would needlessly scapegoat and penalize innocent men, women, and children who are fleeing violence and persecution. It deprives them of the chance to get a new start in a safe place where they are welcome. The motto of our parish is ‘All Are Welcome.’ For us, “all” includes Syrian refugees, whether they are Christian or Muslim. ‘’

While neither the church members nor the sisters want this matter to be political, they understand the climate that has been created.

“It’s very sad people just jump to judgement because people are different,’’ said Sr. Jean Kielty, Director of the House of Good Shepherd and a social worker who has aided the homeless for a quarter century. She shares the house with Sister Mary Ellen, Sister Anna Maria Baldauf, and their dogs, Mocha and Snowball.

“This is just a different kind of homelessness -- a more tragic one.’’

Mary Ellen Moore and Jean Kielty

There is a one ramification Sister Jean is concerned about, though: “I’m not sure if my family will come visit me anymore.’’

Here's a little more information about the nuns behind this initiative and the residence where they are providing a basement apartment to a refugee family next year:

Jean Kielty, SH:
As a social worker, Jean’s ministry has focused on addressing homelessness in the Chicagoland area for more than 25 years. She has served as Director of Interim Housing with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and is currently the Executive Program Director of the House of Good Shepherd. Jean is the founder and current chairperson of the board for Casa Esperanza, a transitional housing program for women and their children located in South Chicago. Jean is one of three leaders of the U.S. Province of the Society of Helpers and resides in her West Ridge home with two other Helpers and their dogs.

Mary Ellen Moore, SH, PhD:
Mary Ellen is a registered psychologist and co-founder of Claret Center in Hyde Park that offers psychotherapy, workshops, and professional development that support wholeness in mind, body, and spirit. In addition to her advisory role at Claret Center, Mary Ellen provides psychotherapy and supervision to clients and students and is the director of training for the practicum at “The Circle," a Helpers-sponsored resource center for Latina immigrant women in Brighton Park. Mary Ellen served served two previous terms as the Helpers' U. S. Provincial from 1985 - 1995 and another term from 2008 - 2014.

The Miller House
This West Ridge modified Georgian Colonial Revival was built by the Hutchins Brothers in 1911. In 1923, the Hutchins family sold the home to Frank Scholl, brother of Dr. William M. Scholl who founded the company Dr. Scholl’s. Frank joined the business in 1910 and oversaw European operations. Featured on the 1996 Annual Fall House Tour and the 2013 Annual House Tour, this historical home boasts 5000 square feet with 5 bedrooms, 5.5 bathrooms and related living quarters.

Although this "large home" has undergone changes with each of the five previous owners, it maintains many qualities of its original historic charm. The Society of Helpers purchased the home in 2014, planning to utilize its space to welcome other Helpers visiting from around the world. They were thrilled to be able to offer the related living quarters to a Syrian refugee family when their parish, St. Gertrude, and Catholic Charities provided an opportunity to present a family in need of a safe home.