Cool to be Kind

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

She ends the story with a laugh that's throaty and bit empty, then calls out to her son to check on the mousetrap in the kitchen while he's in there.

Just around the corner from where Lorraine lives is the sustainable house Tony Hilkin and Julie Jakimczyk are rebuilding. The structure is entirely "off the grid"; electricity will be generated by two solar panels and heat provided by a wood stove.

Becca Young
Carolyn Griffeth, pictured with husband Tery and adopted sons Finn and Ghana, says she isn't sure Ghana even knows that all clothing doesn't come secondhand.
Becca Young
Carolyn Griffeth, pictured with husband Tery and adopted sons Finn and Ghana, says she isn't sure Ghana even knows that all clothing doesn't come secondhand.

Most of the building materials were purchased secondhand or scavenged. The walls are made of straw and clay. There's no hot water. But there is a skylight, a big tub in the bathroom and a vase of roses in the window. In the bathroom Jakimczyk has carved a T and a J into the tile. After November's ice storm, when the neighborhood lost power, theirs was one of the only buildings that had heat.

"There's a lot of projects like this in rural communities, but this is the first one that we know of in a city," says Hilkin. A 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story described the work-in-progress as possibly the "most environmentally conscious building in the St. Louis-St. Louis County area." They plan to move in this spring.

"It's not a Catholic Worker project. It's important to be clear about that," Hilkin notes. Catholic Worker projects, he explains, develop via consensus, and he and Jakimczyk wanted to make the decisions about the house themselves.

Propped against a chair in the kitchen is a poster board that displays photos of the house before the rehab. There are no steps leading to the front door. The back of the house is crumbling, and a vine has grown up through the inside, out a window and onto the roof. The floors are covered with garbage a foot deep.

"It used to be an old crack house," says Hilkin. "That's been confirmed by people at Karen House who used to use crack. They come over here and they can't believe what it looks like now. That's a real 360 there, for the house and the people."

With a trowel he smoothes a section of wall to which he has been applying a plaster-like substance made from mud. He and Jakimczyk plan to use the house to educate people about sustainable living. "Maybe we can just set a bar," he says. "I know we're more extreme than some people ever dream of being."

Both of them struggle with the idea that their work might not make a difference. "It's hard to live with the notion that this might have no impact," Hilkin says. "It's probably the biggest challenge."

"We fail all the time," Jakimczyk puts in. "In our relationships with the guests, we're not always as loving as we should be. We make mistakes, and we get selfish sometimes. I know that's not the way to change the world.

"I know it's unlikely there will be a change," she goes on. "But I know our society's lifestyle doesn't work. It's not sustainable, it's not loving, it's not kind. I think it's irresponsible not to look for something different."

Their quest has led them to construct a tidy, mud-and-straw building with a new blue roof amid an urban no-man's land. It is a cold day and the yard is covered in straw and snow. An unpainted wooden fence is punctuated by a gate with a shiny black latch. A few blocks to the north, the bell tower at St. Liborius juts skyward. Five birds fly over it, black flecks in a clear blue sky.

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