Over a mid-October weekend, current and former members of the Assisi Community — a group of men and women, lay and religious, living together in an intentional Christian community in the nation’s capital — met to remember the past and plan for the future. Here, Jim McIntosh, OFM, who says his participation in the community helped lead him to life as a friar, describes a brief history of the community, which marked the 25th anniversary of its founding this year.
WASHINGTON — Members of the Assisi Community gathered this fall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the community’s founding.
On the evening of Oct. 15, a reception was held at Maryknoll House for members and friends of the Assisi Community. The following day, the group gathered again at a park on Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate an anniversary Mass. The Mass was held in public to remember the vigil of Sr. Dianna Ortiz, a nun who was abducted and tortured while working as a missionary in Guatemala during the late 1980s.
Though the Assisi Community began in 1986, its story starts in 1985 with 12 people meeting twice a month to discuss their experiences of community. This group, which called itself “El Grupo,” was composed of those who had lived in everything from urban communities to the Catholic Worker farm. Some of these communities still existed; others were now defunct. If the community still existed, the members of El Grupo talked about why they left. If the community no longer existed, they talked about why it had failed.
A New, Intentional Community
Out of these discussions, four members of El Grupo decided to try to form a new community utilizing the things that they had learned from these discussions as a guide. These four were Sr. Rita Studer, SSND, a religious sister who had been a missionary to Guatemala and was deeply involved in attempting to bring attention to the human rights abuses then occurring in that country; Marie Dennis, a single mother of six children who was involved in peace and justice work in northern Virginia; Joseph Nangle, OFM, a returned missioner from Bolivia and Peru then working as Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation coordinator for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men; and me — at the time, a young layman running a shelter for homeless men in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington.
On Oct. 4, 1986, Joe and I moved into a row house that the small group had rented. A short time later, we invited a homeless family from El Salvador — two parents and their five young children — to share the house with us, and the Assisi Community was born.
As Sr. Rita, Marie with four of her children, and others moved in, a second house was purchased. A short time later, Vianney Justin, OFM, arrived to join the growing community.
Unlike the other communities founded to perform a communal apostolate, the Assisi Community defines itself as an intentional community — that is, a group of people living together, sharing their lives with one another and supporting each other in their various works.
It is a community of young and old, of vowed and non-vowed, men and women, families and singles, citizens and undocumented — in other words, a diverse group of people who come together to try and live a new form of community. As an example, the current community ranges from age 79 to 28, with all the decades in between represented.
Cohesive, Simple Lifestyle
From its beginning, the members of the community have met for morning prayers and for the evening meal. Although they maintain their separate purses, all contribute for household expenses such as food, rent and utilities. All members also share in communal tasks such as cooking and house cleaning. All decision-making is made by consensus at a weekly, obligatory meeting of the community.
The community has made a conscious decision to live as simply as possible. There are no air conditioners and the temperature is kept low in the winter. Its two houses — which face each other across a back alley — were purchased at a time when the neighborhood was poor and struggled with crises such as drug dealing and violence.
Over the years, the community has made public stands, such as during the Clinton administration, when Sr. Dianna, a member of the community, held a public vigil in front of the White House in an unsuccessful attempt to try to learn the identities of the men who had tortured her during the war in Guatemala.
In its 25 years, some 80 people have come and gone as members of the community. At any given time, there are 14 or 15 adults living in the community and usually a number of children.
Of its original members, Joe and Marie continue to live in the Assisi Community. Sr. Rita returned to her province in Minnesota and has since died. Vianney now lives in Buffalo, and I left the community to join Holy Name Province.
— Br. Jim, a member of the Assisi Community before joining the Province, professed solemn vows in 2003. After several years as a missionary in Bolivia, he returned briefly to the Washington area before moving to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston earlier this year. He is pictured second from right in the far back row of the rear photo. More photos of the celebration can be viewed on Jim’s Flickr photostream.