‘An icon of God’s presence’ remains in Davenport neighborhood

Barb Arland-Fye
From left, Sister Mary Ann Vogel, CHM, Ashley Velez and Monica Mesa talk about plans for use of the former St. Mary Church in Davenport for Humility Homes and Services Inc. HHSI bought the campus and renamed it Jubilee Campus.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Mass is no longer celebrated in the former St. Mary Catholic Church in Davenport’s west end but the sending out of people to do God’s work continues with Humility Homes and Services’ acquisition of the property. Just in time for Christmas, in a neighborhood that has looked to the church as an anchor for 150 years.
“It’s continuing what we are called to do, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing those who don’t have a place to live,” says Sister Mary Ann Vogel, CHM. She serves as vice chair of Humility Homes and Services Inc.’s (HHSI) Board of Directors and president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, the incorporator of HHSI. The sisters began their housing ministry 30 years ago.

HHSI, which provides housing opportunities and supportive services to persons experiencing homelessness, closed on the 4.5-acre former church property Dec. 15. A series of events, perhaps nothing short of a miracle, unfolded to bring the newly named “Jubilee Campus” to fruition.

“Jubilee” describes an ancient custom from Scripture, according to Pope Francis. “A jubilee year served to combat poverty and inequality, guaranteeing a dignified life to all and an equitable distribution of land on which to live and from which to draw sustenance” (https://tinyurl.com/ ycrdumxg).

From dream to reality

HHSI Executive Director Ashley Velez said the Jubilee Campus celebrates the groundwork of the Sisters of Humility and “the legacy they have given to us and the community. We have been able to make their dream a reality.”

The Jubilee Campus provides HHSI “with a central location in the area where its clients live and work,” says Lloyd Kilmer, HHSI’s board chair. While the sisters have begun stepping back so others can carry on their work, “they’ll always be at the center of our mission and what we’re about. The sisters’ dedication, commitment, and doggedness gets things done. Who will say no to a nun?”

Possibilities for a renewed positive presence in the neighborhood emerged about a year ago, when HHSI and the Sisters of Humility learned of merger discussions regarding St. Mary Parish. The parish merged with St. Anthony Parish in downtown Davenport on July 1.

It is perhaps an answer to prayer for people in the neighborhood. While distributing flyers to neighbors for the closing Mass at St. Mary Church, longtime parishioner Monica Mesa heard some say, “I can’t believe they are taking God out of the neighborhood.” They worried about the possibility of the buildings remaining vacant, the presence of gangs or of new property owners who would not make good neighbors. She told them she believed a good owner would purchase the property.

The Diocese of Davenport, responsible for the canonical requirements of the merger, “wanted to provide for the pastoral needs of St. Mary parishioners and make good use of the existing facilities and ensure that the pastoral needs of the faithful be met,” said Father Rudolph Juarez, pastor of St. Anthony Parish. HHSI and several other non-governmental agencies expressed interest in the property.

A blessing for the west-end neighborhood

“With over 150 years in the west end of Davenport, St. Mary was indeed an icon of God’s presence in the neighborhood. The fact that it was dedicated to God and the service of neighbor made it more important that the St. Mary campus be used for the good of society and as a haven for those in need of moral guidance and support,” Father Juarez said. “We wanted St. Mary to continue being a blessing to the people of the west end.”

HHSI’s shelter and a number of its affordable housing units are within blocks of the former St. Mary property. The west-end neighborhood also provides easier access for HHSI clients looking for clothing and household items from the Fresh Start Center that has been located in north central Dav­enport.

The availability of the property “right in our neighborhood, gave us something to think about,” Sister Vogel said. Her CHM leadership team decided that a bequest they received would go toward purchase and renovation of the Jubilee Campus. “It was interesting how things all fell together.” Some Sisters of Humility taught at the former St. Mary School, which closed in the early 1970s, and lived in the convent. They held the neighborhood close to their hearts.

HHSI’s proposal for the property provided St. Anthony Parish “with the incentive to move forward with the sale and plans,” Father Juarez said. “I see any number of possibilities for us to partner with Humility Homes in advancing a safe environment for the vulnerable and helping with the mission of sheltering the homeless. This comes naturally to the diocese and to a lot of Catholics and people of goodwill. So, I see a great potential for good here.”

The plans

St. Mary Church, built in 1867, will house the Fresh Start Donation Center, where HHSI participants can pick up household items they need to rebuild their lives. Other people may purchase items at the center. On Jan. 4, HHSI will launch the Fresh Start Center Opportunity Pro­gram, a 12-week, paid job-training program for people who have experienced homelessness. Participants will work to overcome employment obstacles while gaining job and life skills. “We’re looking for employers to partner with us in offering job opportunities to graduates of the program,” said HHSI Development Director Cloey Quinteiro.

The old rectory will provide eight, single-room occupancy apartments for women who have experienced homelessness. The affordable units will be ready by the first of the year. The women will share community space, such as the kitchen, dining and sitting rooms.

The former school will remain open for community gatherings and the Hispanic community. The former convent will become the administrative offices, with a move-in date in February. “It was (the sisters’) home and now it’s coming home to us,” Velez said.

She said the former cemetery behind the church and rectory would remain green space, with HHSI envisioning a community garden, mobile food pantry and a playground. “We want to hear from the community about what is needed.”

Renovation of the buildings will be an ongoing project. A member of the HHSI board, who has a background in the construction industry, will manage the renovation project.

“Our mission is to end homelessness in the Quad Cities, and more affordable housing is essential to work towards our goal,” Velez said. The west-end neighborhood, among the most financially challenged in Dav­enport, is also a vibrant, historical neighborhood. “We want to honor the people who live and work here.”


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