NEW YORK – Forty years ago, the first Star Wars movie premiered, Beatlemania opened on Broadway and the Apple II computer was introduced. That same year, a group of Franciscan sisters established a shelter that has supported and nurtured women – making a difference in every aspect of their lives, from physical to spiritual – for four decades.
Since 1977 when The Dwelling Place of NY opened on Manhattan’s West Side, a team of sisters, lay staff and volunteers has been offering meals, shelter and services to homeless women to help them restart their lives. Now, The Dwelling Place is commemorating its history and its anniversary.
Throughout 2017, its staff, volunteers and residents will be celebrating the impact of The Dwelling Place. To start things off, a Founders Day Celebration and Reception is being held on Feb. 23 in the Province’s San Damiano Hall, 129 West 31st Street. All are welcome to the event, scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m., that will offer refreshments as well as a photo display, a video presentation describing the history and the goals of the shelter, and opportunities to support this valuable ministry.
For a $50 ticket, people who attend next month’s reception will be able to honor the founders of The Dwelling Place, celebrate its legacy of service and help to continue the mission through a 40th anniversary appeal.
Other celebrations that will mark this milestone include participation in the Ninth Avenue Festival in May, a raffle, the annual gala in October, and a Mass of Thanksgiving on Nov. 12.
Since soon after Christmas, anniversary banners were hung on The Dwelling Place building on West 40th Street and are visible to those driving out of the Lincoln Tunnel. It shows a new logo, created by Michael Reyes, OFM, in collaboration with Michael Meyerowitz, a graphic designer assisting with the anniversary commemorations.
“The logo expresses the essence of our service: loving hands embracing and lifting the face of a woman, a woman at peace and empowered, according to The Dwelling Place website. “She is rising above the trauma of homelessness to welcome a new beginning, much like the lotus flower rising towards the light to bloom with beauty and radiance.”
Shelter and a New Beginning
The Dwelling Place of NY, a collaborative ministry originally founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., is a privately-funded 15-bed transitional residence for homeless women in Midtown Manhattan. It is supported completely through private donations.
Its residents have a variety of backgrounds and reasons for needing shelter. Most have financial problems that were exacerbated by family situations, many experiencing divorce or the deaths of relatives.
“One of my hopes and challenges as we look ahead is to build the next generation of support,” said Sr. Joann Sambs, CSA, director. “Who will be the ones to stand on the shoulders of all those who have led the way over 40 years? I already experience the emergence of this next generation and trust that we will continue to be a beacon on hope here on 40th Street.”
“Through the generosity of faithful donors over these past 40 years, homeless women have found safe shelter and hope for a new beginning because of the services offered at The Dwelling Place,” said Sr. Joann. “The growing number of homeless women in our city and the rising costs of providing for their needs compel us to seek more urgently for funding to ensure that our ministry can continue. A strong community of support surrounding the women during their time of need is the greatest influence in their journey from homeless to home.”
The average cost to provide meals for one month for residents and Wednesday night visitors is $3,500, said Sr Joann. This includes the food and the wages for those who prepare the meals.
Sr. Joann said, “Being a member of The Dwelling Place staff inspires me each day. I experience the pain and trauma of being homeless as the women share their stories and courageously face their challenges. Also, I have the joy of witnessing the miracles that happen in their lives because of their determination and the love and dedication of the other members of the staff, our volunteers, board members and faithful donors. My administrative role calls me to tend to the temporal affairs of this ministry so the women truly have a stable home while they rebuild their lives.”
The Dwelling Place is a collaborative effort, she said. “Since its founding by the Allegany Sisters, 11 congregations of women religious have served in this ministry in many capacities and have also provided financial support. For women religious responding to the needs of the time, serving the poor, and supporting women are at the heart of our mission and call.”
At the time of its founding, Sr. Nancy Chiarello, OSF, and four other members of the Allegany Franciscans were nurses working at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan. From their apartment near the hospital, they would see homeless women searching through their garbage cans looking for food. This heartbreaking scene compelled the sisters to ask their congregation for approval to open a shelter for homeless women who were becoming more numerous and visible in the Times Square/Midtown area. With the support of their congregation and Cardinal Terence Cooke, the archdiocesan building located at 409 W. 40th Street became “home” for many women beginning in October 1977.
“From the beginning, we always said, ‘if this ministry were of God, God would have to provide.’ I stand in awe and gratitude for the many ways God has been faithful providing for us through all these years,” said Sr. Nancy.
Though the ministry of The Dwelling Place has evolved over the years to meet the changing face of homelessness, its mission remains steadfast – to offer safe shelter and individualized care, support, and guidance to homeless women as they build sustainable, self-supported lifestyles.
In addition to providing housing, The Dwelling Place opens its doors one evening a week for guests – women who are homeless, those who are elderly and alone, and former residents who return for ongoing support. The conversations often include the sharing of life experiences that encourages women in different phases of their journeys, said Sr. Joann, who has been part of the staff since 2014.
The building at 409 W. 40th Street belongs to the Archdiocese of New York and is an agency of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, said Sr. Joann. “Cardinal Cooke, who had a heart for the poor, was instrumental in allowing the building to be used rent free by The Dwelling Place. To this day, The Dwelling Place, in exchange, maintains the upkeep of the building and pays all utilities. The archdiocese helps with major repairs.”
The leaders of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany gave permission to the founding sisters to open The Dwelling Place. “However,” said Sr. Joann, “they were not able to give them start-up money and told them they would have to find funding for this project. The sisters set up a booth at the Ninth Avenue Street Fair and raised $300. That was their seed money to begin.”
Through the years, people in the public arena have supported The Dwelling Place by participating in its fundraisers. In 2009, actress Ellen Burstyn served as honorary chair of the gala. In 2010, Michelle Charlesworth, co-anchor of WABC-TV’s weekend morning news, spoke at the gala and reported on the ministry in an Eyewitness News piece.
“It is a remarkable ministry and outreach to women,” said Provincial Secretary Michael Harlan, OFM, a member of The Dwelling Place’s board since January 2015. He enjoys being involved with the organization, he said, because of the dedication of its staff and volunteers and the impact the work has on the people they serve. “I can feel the Franciscan spirit in the people connected with The Dwelling Place.”
Other friars have been involved with The Dwelling Place through the years. They include Jerome Massimino, OFM, Alan Thomas, OFM, and the late Mychal Judge, OFM, who “was very supportive and came every Christmas Eve to celebrate Mass for the ladies,” said Sr. Joann.
“Since The Dwelling Place’s founding, there has always been an affiliation with the friars of 31st Street,” said Michael.
Details about the Feb. 23 event – whose theme is 40 Years on 40th Street – can be obtained on the Dwelling Place website and by calling 212-564-7887 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Photos and information about The Dwelling Place can be found on its Facebook page.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- Video & photos of The Dwelling Place’s 2016 Gala
- “If You Can Shell Out $2,500 to Boost Dems, You can Shell out $75 to boost homeless shelter” – Oct. 21, 2010, Daily News
- “The ‘Fathers John’ Recognized for Pioneering Work with Homeless” — Nov. 2, 2016, HNP Today
- “The Impact of Mychal Judge” – Sept. 2, 2015, HNP Today
- “Allegany Sisters Celebrate Jubliarians, Gather for Chapter” – Sept. 7, 2016, HNP Today