Catholic Worker House celebrates 25 years
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Marilyn Pedretti was on the fast track to yuppiedom, working as a Congressional aide in Washington, D.C., when she decided that there had to be more to life than that.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Marilyn Pedretti draws a laugh from fellow Catholic Workers as she tells stories from her years of service at the Holy Family Catholic Worker House.
She volunteered for mission work in Appalachia, but before she could go, her aunt - a Franciscan sister- urged her to visit the Holy Family Catholic Worker House in Kansas City.
"I was just coming for the summer," she said. "I stayed two years."
She recalled what Christian Brother Louis Rodemann told her during her first few days: "You know, this place will ruin you."
"Well, it has," Pedretti said. "Try to explain it to people in D.C."
Pedretti, who has resumed her career in politics as a Worker House "ruined" person, was one of about two dozen alumni of the Holy Family House who returned on the weekend of June 18 to 20 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Kansas City house of hospitality at 908 and 912 E. 31st Street in the heart of one of Kansas City's poorest neighborhoods.
Health reasons prevented Angie O'Gorman, founder of the house modeled upon Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, from attending the celebration. But others whose time at the house spanned its history shared stories of the struggles and joy that is Holy Family House.
"I once wrote an article that said God kicked me into the Catholic Worker," said Sister of Charity Mary Ellen McDonough, a former editor of The Catholic Key, who is still involved in peace activism professionally.
Sister McDonough said she began volunteering at Holy Family House once a month. That soon stretched into one week, then two weeks, then three weeks per month, "and I missed it the week that I wasn't here."
She decided to move in for a month. "I stayed seven years," she said.
The Catholic Workers recalled how the Holy Family House was founded much like Day established the original house in New York during the Great Depression - on nothing more than prayer and the faith that if they do the work, God will provide the means to feed and shelter whoever comes to the door.
These days, as many as 300 people and more turn up each evening at Holy Family House for a meal, and more importantly, for someone who will accept them as they are.
"It was love and compassion for every person, no matter who came to the door," said Sister Therese Horn-Bostel.
It isn't always easy, the Workers said. And any notion of being able to change the world by themselves quickly disappears.
But somehow, it has lasted for a quarter of a century.
Sister Horn-Bostel recalled one night when the house had no salad - a Worker House staple - to serve with the meal. "At 10 minutes to 6, someone rang the doorbell and said, 'We've got this big bag of salad. Can you use it?"
Sister Jan Cebula recalled a mother begging for soy formula for her lactose-intolerant infant. Sister Cebula had never heard of soy formula. But when she checked the house's pantry, there was a single can.
The work is never easy, the Workers said. And it is often heartbreaking.
Sister Horn-Bostel recalled one particularly hard night, after all the guests had gone. Bone tired, she was in no mood to handle any more problems when the doorbell rang. Her first instinct, she said, was to tell whoever was there that the house was closed for the night and to send them on their way. Then she opened the door.
"There was this badly beaten lady with tears streaming down her face," Sister Horn-Bostel said. "She had been beaten all night long. It taught me to stop before I judged, or barked, and worried about my own problems more than those of others."
But there was laughter in their stories as well.
The Workers recalled one long-time associate whom God had blessed with more intelligence than common sense. One day, alone in the house, he started cooking dinner, and then went outside to repaint the sign on the front porch. He realized that he had locked himself out only when smoke began rolling out the windows. Fortunately, there was little damage, the Workers recalled, but the smell of burnt chicken lingered for weeks.
Then there was a rather famous water fight that broke out when the Workers tried to thaw out a large donation of frozen fish with a garden hose.
"The summers here are incredible," Pedretti said, recalling "fountain jumping"- going from one of the city's fountains to another to cool off on hot summer nights.
"The idea that you could work and pray and play together was new to me," she said.
Paul Kotz said he had a special reason for coming to the Holy Family House.
"I was looking for authentic witness to the Gospels -people whose rhetoric matched up with their actions," he said. "That's what I found here."