Cool to be Kind

Voluntary poverty, sustainable agriculture, helping one's fellow man. A Catholic Worker community quietly grows in north St. Louis.

One of the eight women who founded Karen House in June of 1977 was Virginia Druhe. At the time she was 24 years old and had recently returned to Catholicism. That first winter was an exercise in improvisation, she says. No one even knew how many residents the house could accommodate.

"People come to join us in 'our wonderful work,'" Dorothy Day once wrote. "It all sounds very wonderful, but life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair."

The third of five children, Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1897 to a lower-middle-class family. She joined the Socialist Party while in college, then dropped out in 1916 and moved back to New York. Traveling in bohemian circles, she worked for a Socialist daily, got pregnant and had an abortion. When she got pregnant a second time, she converted to Catholicism and had the child.

The convent at St. Liborius is known as Karen House, where 
four Catholic Workers offer “hospitality” to twenty-eight 
homeless women and children.
Becca Young
The convent at St. Liborius is known as Karen House, where four Catholic Workers offer “hospitality” to twenty-eight homeless women and children.
Jorj Arteaga says his life at Kabat House is much more 
satisfying than the one he led as a film student in New York 
City.
Becca Young
Jorj Arteaga says his life at Kabat House is much more satisfying than the one he led as a film student in New York City.

Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement (and a newspaper, also called the Catholic Worker) in the early 1930s. Their aim: to bring society back to the Gospel via freewheeling discussions, houses of hospitality and sustainable farms. Within ten years 30 houses of hospitality had opened around the nation. But even as the movement grew, Maurin, who died in 1949, and Day, who lived to the age of 83, set few rules.

The movement's credo — to love one's neighbor as oneself — was straightforward enough. But putting it into practice proved complicated.

During the four years Virginia Druhe lived at Karen House, she always felt like she was working in the dark. "Are you supporting the guests or enabling them?" she says. "Are you giving them a shred of dignity, or are you fulfilling your own need to feel like a dramatic savior? Is it enough to give a person a sandwich? When is it enough?"

At one point seventy people lived on the premises, including eight two-year-olds and six women who were more than eight months pregnant.

Eventually the Workers imposed occupancy limits. ("For one thing, the plumbing can't support that," Druhe points out.) They also stopped allowing boys older than thirteen, having found that the presence of males led to competition among some women residents.

The neighborhood changed around the house. At first it wasn't uncommon to hear gunfire coming from the streets, but by the 1980s and '90s St. Louis Place began to empty out. "It became very quiet," Druhe says. "Almost like living in the country." According to U.S. Census figures, the population of the roughly 80-block area dropped 39 percent between 1980 and 2000, from 4,243 to 2,572. St. Liborius stopped holding services in 1991.

In 1995 rows of identical vinyl-sided houses began to spring up, fronted by identical front yards dotted with identical shrubs. About 90 units have been built so far; more are in the works. It looks as if the suburbs had dropped down from outer space. The houses originally sold for about $90,000, says Judy Woolverton, owner of the firm that built them, Choate Construction and Development, but a few recently resold for about $150,000.

The Workers have watched the gentrification with concern. In 2002, when the Archdiocese divested itself of the church and convent, they considered relocating. But ultimately two Workers and a friend of the community bought the two properties for $1. Today they rent out St. Liborius to a statue-restoration company that uses it for storage. Grass sprouts from cracks in the concrete; blackbirds nest in the disused bell tower.

Druhe, now 54, lives in a small apartment not far from the church. She stands in her kitchen ironing handkerchiefs, her back door open to the Workers' urban farm. "Living in voluntary poverty still strikes me as a more honest way to approach people," she says. "But I want everyone to have health care, and I want me to have health care."

She gestures to her living space. The kitchen is clean, with lots of light and an old porcelain sink. Plants hang in the windows. "I want everyone to have a decent home," she says. "So I claim that for myself."

New Roots Urban Farm occupies six previously vacant city lots next to St. Liborius. The vegetables, planted in neat rows, are cultivated organically. A greenhouse has been constructed out of recycled windows; a small coop houses three chickens.

Trish Grim and Joseph Black, a recently married twentysomething couple, started the farm in 2004, basing it on a model in which individuals invest, one growing season at a time and, in exchange, receive fresh vegetables once a week. New Roots had sixteen shareholders its first year. Last year there were 25. The arrangement leaves plenty of food to donate to the local houses of hospitality and neighborhood residents.

"What we do here, it's less of a job, more of a lifestyle," says Grim. "There's such a social aspect to farming. It's a great thing, but it can also be a curse. Rarely do I get a full day's work done."

At the end of last year's season, New Roots hosted a harvest festival, complete with tiki torches, a bonfire and a homegrown feast. "We're young and we like parties," says Grim, "so we figured we should have one." There were potato-sack races and pumpkins to paint for the kids, many of whom had volunteered at the farm during the summer. For the adults there were five cases of Schlafly beer, donated by the St. Louis brewery.

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