Catholic Workers Retreat House Expands, Brick by Brick

CHANCELLORSVILLE — In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt a Catholic church in Italy brick by brick. Now, John Mahoney of the St. Francis Catholic Worker Community in Chancellorsville, his wife Polly, and many volunteers are engaged in a similar project, as evidenced by the brick pile in the front yard. They are expanding their retreat house, where the couple gives free weekend spiritual retreats for poor or homeless people. The retreats are coordinated mainly through shelter and transitional housing directors from Maryland, Virginia and Washington. Brother Vianney Justin, O.F.M., of the Assisi Community in Washington, is retreat director. Now capable of accommodating up to six individuals, the capacity of the two-story structure will soon double. Funding for the project has been provided solely through donations, and $17,000 is still needed to complete construction. "Jesus is the provider for everything," said John Mahoney. "We want to give Him a lot of praise and glory. Without Jesus being the founder of this program, it would never have gotten off the ground." "All this has been accomplished by the grace of God," said Polly. "Even though it is under the banner of the Catholic Worker, so much here is done through the body of Christ, not by us. God rebuilds us." When John and Polly married 15 years ago, they included in their wedding vows a commitment to serve the poor, live in simplicity and embrace voluntary poverty. Parishioners of St. Patrick’s in Chancellorsville, they have been part of the lay, non-profit Catholic Worker program in Washington since 1979, when it was founded by two priests. In 1999 on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Oct. 4, those affiliated with the original Washington community will commemorate its 20th anniversary. Feeling called to come to Virginia in 1993, the Mahoneys opened the first Catholic Worker house in the Arlington Diocese. Even the couple’s adopted two cats, who were once homeless in Washington, have found a haven there. "What the Catholic Worker community is trying to do here is unique; providing a place for homeless people — the most marginalized people in our society — is very important," said Don Hayes, a St. Patrick’s parishioner and professional electrician who has contributed his skilled labor to the house expansion. "There shouldn’t be economic restraints to get spiritual healing, renewal and awakening. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to go on retreats when we want to, know of their life-changing effects." "Our deep, deep thanks for your open arms, loving hearts, humorous spirits, nourishing food and company, Godly surroundings and fine hospitality," wrote one retreatant of her experience there. "I recommend this spiritual place for all searching or broken souls and refugees from injustice. It was so comforting and uplifting." From the time the Mahoney’ opened the retreat house, they have had a tremendous response to their ministry. Many volunteers, mostly from their parish, have donated their time and talents in numerous ways. Some of them are Fred Maulucci of St. Patrick Parish; Richard DeSimone and his sons from St. John Parish in Orange; Catholic Campus Ministry students from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg under the direction of Father Jack Peterson, chaplain; Juan Chavez, an architect from Fredericksburg and Mansour Amizipour, a developer in Locust Grove. Clergy contributors include Father William Schopps of St. Elizabeth Parish in Colonial Beach and Jesuit Father Richard McSorley of Georgetown University in Washington. "After years of providing for their corporal needs, . we were inspired to assist homeless folk in a deeper way — to build their inner strengths and address their spiritual needs," said Mahoney. "This expansion effort is a Christian barn-raising combined with a contractor’s work." Owned by the community as a tax-exempt entity, the ten-acre rural setting offers retreatants, "regardless of their spiritual affiliation, . . . a quiet oasis of peace, to seek and encounter God," said John. He and Polly live in a caretaker’s cottage on the property and cook the meals at the retreat house on weekends. The nearby chapel was created by renovating the garage. A young parishioner, Matthew Fell, cut a nature trail through the woods as part of his Eagle Scout project. As a priest is not available to celebrate Mass at the community, a liturgy is celebrated at nearby St. Patrick Church. "We extend the invitation for them [the poor and homeless] to come with us, and confession is also available," said Polly. "Many of them, even the non-Catholics, want to go and worship with a larger community. The whole weekend here is a worship service." The Catholic Worker movement, whose foundation is prayer, was instituted by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York City in 1933. The 101st anniversary of Day’s birth was celebrated on Nov. 7. The fellowship has 150 communities worldwide, both in urban houses of hospitality and farming locales. "Together," said Mahoney, "we can turn tears and sorrow into joy and hope for so many hurting hearts that come to us for healing." To request a free newsletter, donate funds, material goods or offer volunteer service, contact John or Polly Mahoney at the St. Francis Catholic Worker Community, 9631 Peppertree Rd., Spotsylvania, Va. 22553, 540/972-3218.
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