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Catholic Worker: Can it work as a family activity?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Francisco

Could that young mother with the two little boys, the one who sings lullabies and picks up toys in the living room, possibly be a Catholic Worker? Surely, this isn’t the same person who the next morning is on the street convincing an angry man that he really doesn’t want to bash in the head of a soup kitchen volunteer with a lump of concrete. Or is it?

The message here during a recent three-day conference for a group of Catholic Worker families from across the country was don’t go on automatic pilot the next time Catholic Worker houses of hospitality for the poor come up in conversation. Images of those volunteers who “live simply so that others may simply live” are changing.

As the collective pursuit of material goods rages and the war-making business still thrives, the kind of spirituality Dorothy Day fostered is beckoning to young Catholic couples who want to serve the poor according to radical gospel ideals. And who want to have a family life, as well.

It was in 1933 that Day and Peter Maurin founded what became the Catholic Worker movement, a non-profit nationwide ministry that works with the homeless and hungry. Today there are 150 Worker houses throughout the United States, plus a few in Europe and Australia as well.

“But in 1933, Dorothy didn’t give us models for families who want to minister to the poor, Catholic Worker style,” said Julia Occhiogrosso, cofounder of the Las Vegas’ house of hospitality.

So Occhiogrosso is taking on the visioning process, herself, with help from some colleagues. Last week, Occhiogrosso and Gary Cavalier, her husband, convened a three-day conference at Bethany Presbyterian Church in San Bruno, Calif., for other Catholic Worker couples throughout the United States. It was cosponsored by San Bruno Catholic Workers Kate Chatfield and Peter Stiehler, directors of St. Bruno Parish’s homeless shelter.

The Oct. 11-13 conference was also open to couples who might not minister in a Catholic Worker setting, but who need support and nurturing as they strive to live radical gospel values and cultivate sustainable models of economic simplicity and family life. Titled “For the Long Haul: Discipleship and Family Life,” the conference explored such topics as balancing ministry, resistance and healthy parenting, teaching gospel values to children in the face of the challenge of consumerism, and creating a place for family life within Catholic Worker communities.

Ochiogrosso said the two couples decided to sponsor a meeting after attending a 1997 conference in Las Vegas celebrating Dorothy Day’s 100th birthday, where one session on family life drew a large number of people.

Both couples are creating their own family models as they walk the path themselves. Both couples live away from the homeless shelters or soup kitchens they direct.

Kate Chatfield and Peter Stiehler used to take street people into their home, but now they reserve a private space for themselves and their daughter, Ella, 2-and-a-half years old. The couple is expecting their second baby in December.

“Some people might say this is a big compromise with our ministry, but we feel it is better not to introduce our children to the craziness and chaos that can sometimes take place in a shelter,” said Chatfield.

A Sacramento, Calif., native, Chatfield served as a Jesuit volunteer before joining the Catholic Worker movement in 1993 in Los Angeles. It was there that she met her future husband, Stiehler, who had also served in the Jesuit volunteer corps. They founded the San Bruno Catholic Worker in 1996. Before the St. Bruno Shelter, the couple ran a parish dining room for the homeless. The shelter can accommodate 10 guests who usually stay about a month before going on to transitional housing.

For Chatfield, the bottom line for balancing ministry and family is “to not place our work above the children. And to model ministry instead of preaching about it.” Even though Catholic Worker families live in voluntary simplicity, that doesn’t rule out such goodies as Christmas gifts. Chatfield says it would be counterproductive and would build resentments if she were to tell her children, “We can’t give you presents because other kids won’t have them.”

For Julia Occhiogrosso, 38, the words family and Catholic Worker are nearly synonymous. Her older sister, Rosemary, used to live at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker House where she worked as a nurse midwife at the clinic. Occhiogrosso, from Brooklyn, N.Y., first visited Los Angeles the summer she graduated from high school. At the time, she said, she had doubts that she would be able to live a good Christian life because of all the contradictions she saw around her.

“Then I went to the Catholic Worker and met adults who had taken these values seriously.” Their espousal of nonviolence, of seeing the sacred in all of life and of serving the poor in community affected Occhiogrosso profoundly. “What they were doing made such sense to me,” she recalls.

After attending college for two years, Occhiogrosso went to the L.A. Catholic Worker as a volunteer. That was in 1982. She met Gary Cavalier, a volunteer at the San Luis Obispo, Calif., Catholic Worker.

Four years later, she attended the Nevada Desert Experience, a prayer vigil and protest against nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. She saw the superficiality of Las Vegas, with its glitter and gaming and its hidden poverty, and was moved to start a Worker house there. The couple moved to Nevada 13 years ago.

The Las Vegas Catholic Worker collaborates with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, serving as a day site for homeless people making the transition into apartments and jobs. Its volunteers also operate a breakfast kitchen. When the couple first moved to Las Vegas, they took ice water out to the streets, where day laborers queued for jobs each day, and asked them what people needed. A place to get breakfast, they said.

Occhiogrosso and Cavalier’s home came through a bureaucratic requirement in the city’s adoption system, the grace of God and a contractor friend’s offer. The couple wanted to adopt two little brothers, Jonathan, now 5, and Nicholas, 4, whom they had been caring for as foster children. But the agency wouldn’t let them do so until they had found a home away from the Catholic Worker. “A friend offered to help us build a house if we could find a piece of land. We did. It’s eight miles from the Worker.”

Occhiogrosso’s source of income differs somewhat from Chatfield’s. Although also relying on donations, she works part-time teaching a workshop for area parishes on active nonviolence. She is part of a team of people who teach the course through Pace Bene, a Franciscan ministry. Her husband, Gary, does the books and edits a newsletter for the Nevada Desert Experience.

Occhiogrosso thinks it is important for Catholic Worker families to develop cottage industries, where they can support themselves and still do ministry. She also values the support of other families. “So many of us do these things in isolation,” she said.

But perhaps, not for long. Recently, Occhiogrosso read a study that said that in this year’s crop of college graduates, there has been a definite shift away from interest in big money toward cultivating a successful family life.

That’s pretty exciting for Occhiogrosso, who admits she worries about her two boys’ interest in television and exposure to commercials and materialism. Occhiogrosso says she will provide them with a balance by exposing them to the poor, but at the same time allow them to have their lives and make their own decisions. “If we try to impose selflessness, it might backfire,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999