The rectory at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church at 38 N. Austin Blvd. in Oak Park has been in the news for its recent conversion into an interim overnight shelter for Housing Forward. But, with Housing Forward’s use of the space ending April 30, the Catholic church in Oak Park is actively exploring a long-term vision for the space.
When Oak Park’s four Catholic parishes were combined into two under the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Renew My Church initiative, an expressed outcome of the process was “to use St. Catherine-St. Lucy campus as a base for powerful ministry outreach to the West Side of Chicago.”
As part of this outreach, the Rev. Carl Morello, pastor of the now-combined St. Giles/St. Catherine-St. Lucy, launched a feasibility study to determine if the St. Catherine- St. Lucy rectory could be repurposed as a social service center to address critical, unmet needs of underserved families in the Austin neighborhood.
“At the heart of it all is a reality that St. Catherine-St. Lucy stands on the cusp of Oak Park and Austin,” Morello said. “I want to see it stand as a beacon of hope and light, reaching out to those who need services.”
The St. Catherine-St. Lucy campus is already home to a school operating under the auspices of the nonprofit Big Shoulders Fund, where 85% of the 188 students are Austin residents, as well as Sister House, a program in the former convent offering services for women in recovery from addiction, Morello says that it makes sense to bring more services to the campus.
The feasibility study is already underway, headed by volunteers from both of Oak Park’s Catholic parishes, St. Giles/St. Catherine-St. Lucy and Ascension/St. Edmund’s. The team is divided into three committees: community-based needs, assessment and business plan development; facility needs, assessment of the rectory and convent; and fundraising, designed to generate the resources to launch and sustain the new project.
Dan Doody and Jack Crowe are co-chairing the feasibility study and the community outreach committee as well. Both stress that the beginning of the process involves seeking out and listening to voices from the Austin community.
“Our real focus here is meeting community needs, and our goal at this time is to really listen,” said Crowe, who also writes occasional opinion columns for Wednesday Journal.
The community outreach team has been working since February to connect with families from Austin. One of the first groups surveyed was families who have children attending St. Catherine-St. Lucy school.
Doody says the survey gauged interest in a number of services, including a food bank, mental and physical health services, addiction services, financial education and more. The survey asked families whether they would use those service and if they thought their neighbors could use those services.
The team then reached out to families at four other schools in Austin, including Chicago Jesuit Academy, Christ the King High School, St. Angela School and Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School. Following up on the surveys, the next step will include focus groups of families and school faculty.
Doody says that they are also reaching out to social service organizations in Austin.
“We don’t want to duplicate their efforts,” he said. “We want to know what are the needs of their constituents that they are not providing. Do they want or need to expand?”
Everything will be considered in context, says Crowe.
“In many ways, our goal is to be a matchmaker, to connect people to services they need so that they can thrive,” Crowe said.
He points to the Infant Welfare Society’s Children’s Clinic, which is a block away from the school at St. Catherine-St. Lucy and is already providing services to students.
“It’s a beautiful thing, to have need and mission alignment,” Crowe said. “The goal is to replicate this on a larger scale.”
The feasibility study for what is already being called The Social Service Community Center at St. Catherine-St Lucy is estimated to wrap up June 30. The hope at that time is for the group can make a recommendation about creating a community center, which would ultimately empower 250 to 500 individuals a year to achieve healthier, more stable lives by providing access to a range of social services.
Morello acknowledges it’s a big project.
“Some might be concerned that we are biting off more than we can chew, but as a priest, I have to put my trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” Morello said. “We have strong support from the archdiocese, and here’s an opportunity to do something.”
If you are interested in learning more or helping on any of the committees for the feasibility study for The Social Service Community Center at St. Catherine-St. Lucy, reach out to Dan Doody at email@example.com or Jack Crowe at firstname.lastname@example.org.