Published January 11, 2007
A “new seed” called the Claver House will carry on the love of prayer and mentoring efforts planted in the surrounding inner city community where the Maisha House of Prayer once stood.
The news of this offshoot gives joy to Sister Loretta McCarthy, SBS, one of two sisters who first opened Maisha House and who tilled the soil for well over a decade at what became for many a spiritual home away from home.
Prayer is woven into the fabric of life for Sister Loretta. She thrives on silence and the rhythm of life created by a sustained prayer life.
“As a child I was always drawn to the quiet and a deepening sense of God’s love,” she said.
This love of prayer is part of the legacy of the Maisha House of Prayer, a ministry begun in 1990 that addressed the spiritual needs of the homeless as well as those in the archdiocese and beyond.
With election to the vice presidency of her religious community of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in the spring of 2006 Sister Loretta faced the difficult reality of closing Maisha House as she would have to relocate to her motherhouse in Bensalem, Pa.
Over 100 people, along with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, gathered on Aug. 6, 2006, to remember and celebrate Maisha House’s contributions to the community.
“Our journey of prayer outside and inside the building at 520 Parkway Drive brought to a close Maisha’s ministry of 16 years,” Sister Loretta shared in a letter to the community. “It took another month of packing, distributing and cleaning with help from faithful friends of Maisha before the sign came off the door and all was left in readiness for the new owners.”
On Sept. 25, 2006, the Knights of Peter Claver along with the Ladies Auxiliary from Our Lady of Lourdes Church signed a lease/purchase agreement for the property, beginning a new endeavor called the Claver House.
She shared the group’s mission statement: “Our goal is to provide a means for all people to communicate and share their faith, their experience, and make a difference in the lives of our community through mentorship, fellowship, leadership, and volunteer commitment.”
The group hopes to maintain a positive presence in the neighborhood.
Growing up Sister Loretta attended daily Mass and often stopped by church to say a prayer on her walk to school. It seemed natural, too, for her and her friends to pray novenas “and then go out and have fun.”
“(Prayer) never interfered with the rest of life—all the crazy things in the rest of my life.”
Religious life has been a beautiful extension of a deepening relationship with God for the sister, who has many roots in the Atlanta community as she also served as principal of Our Lady of Lourdes School for most of the 1970s.
Her desire to provide a spiritual home to inner city Atlanta was a natural fit for Sister Loretta and also Sister Mary LaSalette Ouellett, SBS, who established in 1990 the Maisha House of Prayer, a self-supporting facility opened to the surrounding community. “Maisha” is Swahili for “life.” In May 1995 Sister Nancy Auster, SBS, joined the Maisha House ministry.
“It came out of a desire of mine to have something of a spiritual nature within the city,” Sister Loretta said.
The sister expressed this desire to those within her religious community, and they began to look into the possibility.
“We worked together to decide, to discern, where to go. We looked at the places we’d been. In that day, 16 years ago, there were fewer African-American bishops. We looked where there was black Catholic leadership, and Atlanta kept coming up among the list of places that did not have a spiritual center—no motherhouses or retreat centers (within the city).”
Another aspect in favor of starting a center in Atlanta was the rich legacy that the religious community had there. The Sisters of Blessed Sacrament began the elementary school at Our Lady of Lourdes in 1912, when the community’s foundress, then Mother Katharine Drexel, who was canonized a saint in 2000, sent funding and some of her sisters to staff the school.
Once the sisters settled on Atlanta for a house of prayer, they approached then Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, SSJ, and plans began to take shape.
Father Henry Gracz, now a monsignor, was serving as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes then. He was “extremely supportive,” Sister Loretta said, adding that he introduced the sisters to those in the community.
The sisters began to minister within the parish first, as the center would need to be self-supporting. “We introduced people to what we wanted to do, and the response from the people was remarkable, both far and wide. … It was remarkable how they had come together, people from different parishes, different faiths and racial backgrounds. It was a diverse movement.”
Sister Loretta called Maisha House “a bridging experience” for many in regards to race and an opportunity to experience healing.
“One of the joys when I think back was to watch the diversity of people gather at times of celebration or of prayer and really get to know each other. … People just connecting, who wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The sisters’ overriding mission was to serve the spiritual needs of the community.
“There are so many agencies in the area that do remarkable work giving food and aid to the poor.”
The sisters’ work, then, was to offer hospitality and a “place to come in and sit down.”
“It’s something people long for, conversation and the reality that people were praying for me. For the physical needs, we knew where the agencies were. We needed to maintain a balance. We weren’t a social service agency. We wanted to live among the people and pray for them.”
While the sisters hoped to cultivate a peaceful atmosphere for those who walked through their door, Sister Loretta added that “some people taught us.”
She recalled one woman from the Congo who fervently prayed regularly that she would be reunited with her children who were still overseas. Her prayers were eventually answered, and the woman had also been willing to lead an all-night vigil at Maisha House a few years ago.
“She taught us a lot about the prayer of intercession.”
Sister Loretta also shared stories of a woman from Ireland and a local woman who were involved in the ministry at Maisha House.
“We don’t know how many people we touched—it’s not something that can be quantified.”
But one indicator of the extent of the center’s outreach was its mailing list.
“We never knew that we’d have a mailing that went across the world.”
With her new leadership position Sister Loretta now travels to visit her community’s convents throughout the United States. She said that while she is “a little more removed” when she is at the motherhouse, there are more opportunities for quiet.
“At Maisha there was no quiet. We kept our prayer space, but there was always the doorbell ringing and we’d invite in anyone interested in being a prayer partner. … It was busy but peaceful.”
Still, she misses the “rhythm” of her previous life in Atlanta.
“I had to let go of that gift. I felt God had elected me. I couldn’t do both, and there wasn’t anyone able or willing to take on the ministry.”
Many might have characterized the location of the Maisha House as being in a tough neighborhood, but Eugene Roberts said it was always known as “a safe place” and highly regarded because of the sisters’ work.
“They mentored people through all their activities. They treated people well—praying and talking to anyone who knocked on their door. They did whatever they needed to do to help.”
A Knight of Peter Claver, Roberts attended many events at Maisha House and recalled the chain of events once the sisters realized in the spring that they would have to “pull out.”
“When they decided to sell the house, they jokingly asked if (the Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies’ Auxiliary) wanted it,” said the Brunswick native. “We thought and prayed on it, and that’s basically when we got involved.”
Roberts is among a core group of those who hope to build upon the work the sisters started. Continuing to be a presence in the community falls in line with the work of the Knights.
“We have a million ideas,” said Roberts, 36.
Among them is to hold a picnic in the spring or summer that will be open to the public “for people to come in and have a good time.”
Also under consideration is developing a mentoring and tutoring program for children from area elementary schools and equipping the location with computers to help children who may not have computers at home but who need access to the Internet for their schoolwork.
Part of the vision for the space is to continue to provide opportunities for the community to grow spiritually through retreats, Communion services and prayer services and by praying the rosary, among other things.
Deacon Chester Griffin of Our Lady of Lourdes has also been in on some of the planning for the transition of the Claver House.
“Basically we’re trying to keep the same sacredness of the house that the sisters were able to leave and to be a service to the community.”
With the nationwide network of the Peter Claver organization and with the backing of the Atlanta Archdiocese, Deacon Griffin believes they will be able to “continue on with the spiritual needs of the community.”
“One of the things we felt that must continue on is the spiritual legacy the sisters gave us. … It’s not an easy thing to do.”
In honor of the sisters, Deacon Griffin shared plans of dedicating the house’s prayer chapel to the sisters. He also hopes that future programs and events will draw on the resources and talents of many in the community.
“It’s just not an Our Lady of Lourdes project. … It will bring us together for a common cause. We can do more with the unity we hope to have.”