The year was 1849. The place a town in the South of France named Beziers. A brave cleric named Jean Gailhac had a dream. He would work to found a band of “friends” dedicated to improving the lives of people too often neglected by their 19th Century urban society. As the dream began to evolve, its founder searched his mind and heart to express the dream. What would capture the inspiration, become its motto or mantra and plant its roots in the deep soil of faith nourished by a reason that would give it a hope to survive?
Gailhac found his answer in a simple phrase from the book of “good news” known as Scripture. In that book, the followers of another brave dreamer recalled and recorded a simple hope they must have been heard hundreds of times in thousands of ways as he walked with a growing band of friends. It came down to this simple statement of purpose: What brought me here, now? “I have come that all may have life, and have it to the full.”
Which brings us to Harlem in 1985. And if you are wondering what might have possessed a one-time teacher of logic to opt for what looks like a shameless non-sequitur, let me describe the path. Recent conversations with Georgette Lawton, RSHM told a story of a path from the 19th Century South of France to 20th and 21st Century urban New York. The conversations were referred to in a story appearing some years ago in a newsletter circulated to members of what is known as the Extended Family of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
And now for the “spoiler alert.” Over the years since 1849, Gailhac’s dream came to life, and over the intervening 168 years continues to take on shapes as varied as the life it was born to serve. From serving orphans and forgotten women of the street to educating children and university students in a global family originating in Europe and expanding to North and South America and Africa, the dream has changed its face, but not its heart. Wherever life’s challenges, the people of Gailhac’s dream have gone as well, as educators, lawyers, advocates, chaplains, the director of an NGO at the United Nations that bears the identity RSHM and the spirit of pioneers including Marie Joseph Butler, RSHM founder of the first “Marymount” in Tarrytown, New York.
One of those enterprises of hope began to take shape in 1985, when a ministry was founded by RSHM Sisters Georgette Lawton and the late Alice M. Biegen and named for their Sister and honoring her inspiration. Columba Kavanagh House (CKH) took its name from one of their 20th Century forerunners in challenging ministries and sounded an unmistakable echo of the dream of Gailhac.
The Founders’ dream for Columba Kavanagh House began and continues today as provision of permanent housing with supportive services to formerly homeless single men and women with a history of mental illness and/or substance illness (drugs/alcohol.) From its beginning, the initiative gave courageous and creative expression to the words of Christ that inspired their founder, Gailhac. Trusting in their experience of and the urgency of the need for such life-enhancing services, the pioneers of Columba Kavanagh House did what their Founder had done nearly a century and a half before. They identified available skills and reached out to friends who shared their ideals. The Sisters had been sheltering homeless women on a temporary basis in the basement of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in NYC. Demonstrating that there are no coincidences for those with a mission, they began analyzing how to direct the hope in a new and practical direction.
As provincial treasurer, Sister Alice had been tasked with the mission to explore permanent housing options in NYC for RSHM Sisters in Europe who wished to return to New York to begin new ministries, but who also needed permanent housing. In the portfolios of brokers with whom she worked were many buildings designated SRO (Single Room Occupancy.) These buildings were still occupied but the living conditions were deplorable. Repairs were being neglected and landlords were not providing basic services. Sister Alice had done many building projects from the ground up in South America and had a history of managing building projects both in the world of educational facilities, and in her then-current work as province treasurer.
Tapping into their experience and the resources the city and state could make available, CKH was able to acquire a vacant city-owned building at 209 East 118 Street, and began substantial rehabilitation in 1989. Columba Hall HDFC opened its doors to 110 homeless single adults in August 1990. Earlier that year two privately owned Single Room Occupancy buildings had come on the market and the Sisters and their growing number of allies began the hard work that enabled them to open the doors to 63 more homeless single adults in February 1992 in EGA Hall/HDFC. The growing alliance was able by October 1993 to open the doors of GEMA Hall HDFC to 87 more homeless single adults.
Columba Services, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation formed in 1990, which provides with a Federal government grant, supportive services to its tenants. A staff of counsellors offers them:
• Supportive and informational counseling; • Health and mental health monitoring and referral; • Community life skills such as meal planning and preparation; • Personal hygiene, apartment care, money management; • Substance abuse/MICA counseling and referrals; • Job related supportive services and referrals; • Recreational activities; • Crisis intervention; • Benefits assistance.
Now, 32 years into its life, Columba Kavanagh House continues to shape itself to the lives of those Sister Georgette and her colleagues serve. Would the CKH of 2017 be recognizable to those whom it served in 1985? Whether the answer is “Yes’ or “No”, the unmistakable continuity is defined by a commitment to ensure that those it serves have LIFE and have it to the full. Or as the saying would be in Beziers, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Dedicated to housing those in need, CKH constantly hones and perfects its skills and services to match the times so that at its heart it will “remain the same,” inspired by 168 years of Founders’ dreams.