By Joanne Fox of the Catholic Globe
The director of Clare Guest House in Sioux City puts a different spin on the “What Would Jesus Do” slogan.
“I think what we provide is ‘What Jesus Would Do,’” said Dubuque Franciscan Sister Gwen Hennessey of the transitional home for women who have been released from prison.
Clare Guest House began as an initiative of the Sioux City Multicultural Neighborhood Project (SCMNP), a ministry authorized by the legislative body of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, in 1998. Its mission was to respond to the needs of poor women and children, collaborate in the development of neighborhood communities and serve as an outreach to Spanish-speaking immigrant groups.
“When we no longer had any Spanish-speaking sisters for the project, it evolved into this project of providing a safe, supportive environment for women coming out of prison,” explained Sister Grace Ann Witte, who resides at Clare Guest House with Sister Gwen.
In 2005, a team made up of Franciscan Sisters Shirley Waldschmitt, Mary Lee Cox and Grace Ann initiated the planning of the halfway house. The SCMNP team developed a philosophy for the house, identified the type of women it would serve, drafted rules and staffing plans and presented its findings, Sister Grace Ann explained.
“A small group of women agreed to continue to meet as an advisory group, colloquially described as the ‘Wise Women,’ to further finalize plans,” she said. “It was at that time the name Clare Guest House developed, in honor of St. Clare of Assisi, who lived an active life among the poor, serving lepers, before being forced into an enclosed contemplative life.”
“I think she would be very proud of this house, named in her honor,” Sister Gwen added.
In July 2005, the SCMNP team submitted and received approval for a grant from the Sisters of St. Francis Ministry Fund for $20,000 to begin Clare Guest House.
A two-story, five-bedroom house at 1918 Douglas St., which had been a residential treatment facility for teenage girls – but vacant for about five years – was rented from Sioux City Boys and Girls Home and Family Services.
Sister Gwen moved in Sept. 27, 2005 to serve as live-in director.
“The first guest arrived on Dec. 12, 2005, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she noted. “I don’t think it was a coincidence that first guest was half-Hispanic.”
In 2006, Clare Guest House was incorporated as independent organization, distinct from the SCMNP and from the Sisters of St. Francis. A board of directors meets bi-monthly; Martha Burchard of Sioux City serves as the chair of the board. Clare Guest House achieved non-profit status in 2008.
The home has had 106 admissions over the past decade, most from the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution in Mitchellville, Iowa. Some have returned to this sanctuary more than once, Sister Gwen admitted.
“We’ve had some women who were not success stories,” she said, “but we’ve also had many who have – who have kept in touch with us, thanking us for getting their lives back.”
Sister Gwen could point to herself as a success story, as she has once “walked the walk.”
Sister Gwen and her sister Dorothy Hennessey – also a Franciscan nun – were among 13 women arrested for a civil disobedience violation in 2000 during a nonviolent protest at the U.S. Army Infantry Center in Fort Benning, Ga. She and her sister each received a six-month sentence and served it at a federal women’s prison in Illinois.
Clare House is the only transitional home of this type in Northwest Iowa and the only one under the auspices of the Dubuque Franciscans, who founded Briar Cliff University in Sioux City.
Sister Grace Ann, a former BCU sociology and criminology professor, pointed out guests – who are all on parole – must commit to stay at least two months but no more than six months.Subtitles
“During that time, women must look for work, meet with parole officers and help with chores, such as cooking and cleaning,” she said. “In some cases, especially for health reasons, we have allowed the stay to be longer.”
There is no typical Clare House guest, Sister Grace Ann emphasized.
“We have had women as young as 19 and as old as 64; however, the most frequently-occurring ages were 25-26,” she said. “We’ve had women who completed an eighth grade education and ones who earned master’s degrees.”
What may be a commonality is substance abuse. Almost 90 percent of the women on their application forms indicated a problem with substance abuse and almost 80 percent have been in treatment for chemical dependency.
“It’s certainly one of our greatest challenges – mental health issues because of the environment in which these women were raised with their addictions,” Sister Gwen said.
Funding Clare Guest House comes primarily from private donations; however, two substantial donations have been received from Missouri River Historical Development (MRHD), the Siouxland nonprofit that holds the state gaming license for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Sioux City. MRHD collects 4.25 percent of the casino’s adjusted gross gaming revenues and distributes that to Siouxland charities, agencies, governmental bodies and civic groups.
Five years ago, the home was awarded a grant to install new, energy-efficient windows. In December 2016, MRHD awarded a $35,000 gift to Clare Guest House.
“This year’s holiday gifts’ theme, ‘People Helping People,’ inspired us to support agencies that work directly with families, children and individuals to meet a range of basic needs,” said Mark Monson, president of the MRHD board.
One of the needs Clare Guest House may face in the future is leadership. Sister Grace Ann is 79 and Sister Gwen is 84.
“We have no plan,” Sister Grace Ann said with a smile, while Sister Gwen laughed out loud, adding, “We leave it all in God’s hands.”
This article first appeared in the Catholic Globe, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.