By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Earlier this month, Iowa City Catholic Worker House announced the creation of a new community land trust that now owns the 2,800-square-foot house of hospitality at 1414 Sycamore St. In addition, the trust formally establishes the organization’s framework, ensuring that it can continue to provide hospitality and refuge to the poor and oppressed well into the future.
“This is a big deal because it codifies our principles and practices inside of an institutional legal framework for the first time,” said Catholic Worker House trustee Emily Sinnwell.
“Getting this into communal hands has always been a goal of ours,” said Catholic Worker House trustee David Goodner, noting that this framework has been successful for other Catholic Worker groups in the region.
Formally establishing Catholic Worker House through a trust was one of three primary goals of the organization when it started in 2016. The other goals were offering transitional overnight housing in a community environment and establishing a weekend meal program. All three goals have now been met.
“The purpose of this trust is to further the aims and goals of the Catholic Worker Movement as expressed by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin,” the trust document states. “To that end the Trustees shall use the Trust Estate to provide hospitality and refuge to the poor and oppressed and to provide a location for a Catholic Worker community.”
The trust was established with the pro bono legal help of the Holland, Michael, Raiber, & Sittig Law Firm. During the process, Catholic Worker House refinanced the mortgage on the house for a lower rate with the University of Iowa Community Credit Union.
Catholic Worker House leaders say the new, unincorporated, charitable, not-for-profit, community land trust has wide-ranging, long-term benefits.
The house was previously in Sinnwell’s name, with donations covering the down payment, subsequent mortgage payments and other expenses. With the new community ownership, its success isn’t dependent on one person’s involvement, as long as people want to fulfill the mission laid out in the trust, Goodner said. Catholic Worker House will be able to bring in additional trustees if someone has to step down for whatever reason.
Additionally, with the community land trust, it will be easier to add properties. Catholic Worker House is currently looking for a second property in Iowa City, Goodner said. “We need the right house in the right location for the right price, and once we meet those three conditions, we will … make it happen.”
The trust also establishes the Diocese of Davenport as the recipient of all property and assets if the independent lay community should close its doors and end its ministry. “It made sense to us that the best steward of assets would be the diocese because we know the Diocese of Davenport has been there since day one for us; and also, that if they were given all the assets, we know they would do something really good with it,” Goodner said.
The Iowa City Catholic Worker House offers short-term overnight stays, a free food pantry and regular open hours for people who are poor and homeless to come in for homemade meals, hot coffee, showers, laundry, conversation and community. Five people live at Catholic Worker House now, including four refugees. Catholic Worker also hosts a monthly Mass and dinner, among other programs. Catholic Worker House runs solely on donations and volunteerism.
“We feel really good that we’ve, as of now, done everything we said we were going to do when we started two year ago,” Goodner said. “Now we are looking at how to continue down the road we started.”