Catholic Worker Hospitality House of San Bruno - Providing meals and shelter in San Bruno, California.

Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

Return to Indoor Dining!

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

“Oh, you’re open!” remarked a guest arriving at our dining room on Wednesday morning.  “So we’re allowed to come inside to eat now? Great!”  

On Tuesday, June 15 the state of California removed most COVID restrictions limiting indoor dining at restaurants and food service sites, thus allowing Catholic Worker Hospitality House to return to indoor serving at our dining room.  

Our guests were understanding and accepting of us only serving food to-go during the COVID Pandemic. They were just happy that we were still open!  Still, the return to sit-down indoor dining is very much appreciated.  I’ve heard from several guests that what sets our dining room apart is the friendly relaxed setting with real plates, silverware, and coffee mugs.  They love being able to get out of the elements and sit in a comfortable and welcoming dining room with plenty of good food and folks with which to socialize.  That was lost during the COVID pandemic, but it’s back now!

We are very thankful to be in this position: thankful that our guests, volunteers, and staff avoided getting infected with the COVID virus, thankful that we are now able to return to our regular indoor serving; and thankful that St. Bruno’s Parish was supportive of our remaining open (even in a modified way) during the COVID Pandemic.

Life is good!

June Appeal

June 2021

In keeping with the theme of celebrating Catholic Worker Hospitality House anniversaries in 2021, I would like to acknowledge my own Catholic Worker anniversary. June 19 will mark thirty years I’ve been a part of the Catholic Worker Movement. In this letter I would like to share my journey to the Catholic Worker and why I’ve stayed.

Dear Friends,

For the past thirty years I have been part of the Catholic Worker Movement, with the last twenty-five years being at Catholic Worker Hospitality House in San Bruno, which I co-founded with my wife Kate Chatfield. I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to live out my Catholic faith in this manner, but given my early background it’s the last thing I, or anyone who knew me, would have ever expected from my life.

I grew up in suburban Dallas, Texas in a conservative Republican family with a father who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1968. The only service talked about in our house was military service. While I was raised Catholic, we weren’t a devout family. My mother made sure we went to Mass every Sunday and that I attended catechism classes until I was confirmed in the Church, but we were neither active in our parish nor did faith play a major role in our daily life. When my parents divorced shortly after my Confirmation, we stopped regular Mass attendance, which as a teenager I didn’t complain about.

In many ways life in suburban Dallas in the 1970’s was idyllic with good schools, safe neighborhoods, and hordes of other children with which to play. As a white male life seemed full of opportunities, but in retrospect my career choices were rather limited. When I became a student at the University of Texas at Austin it was assumed I would get a business degree and work in the corporate world. The idea of devoting my life to voluntary simplicity and social justice with a radical Catholic organization was unimaginable. All that began to change when I embraced Catholicism as an adult.

Among my friends religious practice was frowned upon. This was due partly to youthful rebellion and partly to the perceived hypocrisy of churchgoers. The Way of Jesus espouses such high ideals of loving our brothers and sisters, serving those in need, and eschewing power and wealth. Yet his followers all too often seem more concerned with maintaining their own privilege and prestige than in embracing the radical ideals of Jesus. At least that was my experience growing up in suburban Dallas.

With this in mind I felt if I was going to be a churchgoer and maintain the respect of my friends (and myself), then I had to take my faith seriously and have it be the guiding force in my life. I wanted to live an authentic and sincere faith, but I was clueless as to how to achieve this goal, as my only experience of religious practice was the “one hour a week” variety. So I got active in my parish to deepen my faith life. I became a Eucharistic minister and lector, was an active participant in the student young adult group, attended weekly bible study, and the occasional retreat. I had the zeal of a convert and the idealism of youth, but was still a fairly mainstream Catholic. Then a series of events led me to begin making major changes in my life. First, a friend was severely injured in a motorcycle accident (I too rode a motorcycle at the time); then another friend was murdered in a drug related incident; then my father died at age 51 from cancer; and finally the space shuttle Challenger exploded on take off. All of these events made me think, “I could die at any time. How would I account for myself before God if I died today? I need to start living my faith now.”

The first thing I did was switch from studying business to history. After changing my major I was often asked what I was going to do with my life. “I don’t know,” I would respond, “but I’m not going to work in a bank.” Those who knew me thought I was overly pious and naive. I probably was, but I knew that I somehow wanted to have my faith be an integral part of my life’s work and studying finance wasn’t going to help me with that. So I started searching. I knew I didn’t need the answers immediately, but I did need to start walking the path to find those answers.

Once again, I felt somewhat lost in this search. I had no one to show me the way to a life of devoted Christian service, so I set off the best I could. I started reading lives of saints and holy people in an attempt to find a model of how to live a faith-filled life of service, but while admirable they didn’t show me a way to live my faith outside of vowed religious life (and celibacy and obedience have never been my strong points).

Then I read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. I was inspired by the story of her life: her pre-Catholic life as a journalist in the 1910’s and 1920’s writing about and participating in the struggles to create a more just society, her conversion to Catholicism and the years she spent struggling to find a way to combine her new found faith and ongoing commitment to creating a more just society. Then in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Peter Maurin showed up at her door with the answers she was seeking: publish a paper extolling the Church’s social teachings, open houses of hospitality to serve the needs of the poor, create “agronomic universities” (farms) to get unemployed workers back to the land, and host roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought. This was the model for what became the Catholic Worker Movement. For the remaining years of her life she, and those who joined her, lived in the lower East Side of New Your City in voluntary poverty so as to devote their limited resources to feed, shelter, and care for the outcasts of society. She continued challenging and writing about unjust social structures, as well as the solutions for them that could be found in the church’s social teachings. I remember saying to myself, “Boy!, if I could ever be a saint, that’s what I would like to do.” It felt so authentic, much closer to the way of Jesus than the “one hour a week” Catholicism in which I was raised.

While I was doing my literary research I was also volunteering at my local parish to see what sort of ministry spoke to me. I was involved in youth ministry and teaching catechism classes, but felt neither comfortable nor competent in either of those pursuits. Then I got involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where I made home visits to folks seeking food aid, furniture, or rental/utility assistance. This spoke to me. I felt called to directly serve those most in need as I thought this could be the way that I could combine my faith and life’s work. But I needed more experience to see if I was up to this task.

 

Peter during his time with the JVC working at a day center for mentally and physically disabled adults in North Philadelphia

I chose the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) for that year of exploration. The JVC is a yearlong volunteer program in which participants live in community with other volunteers, get placed in a job serving the community, and receive a small monthly stipend. I spent my year in Santa Monica working at a meal program on Venice Beach (if this is poverty, bring on chastity!). I enjoyed the work, liked living in community, and benefitted from the retreats where we deepened our spirituality and learned of issues of peace and justice. I enjoyed my year so much I signed up for another year, this time in Philadelphia, PA, working at a day center for mentally and physically disabled adults in a rough neighborhood of north Philly. My JVC experience confirmed my desire to continue working in faith-based social service. It was a life that made sense to me and now I knew I could do it. Unfortunately JVC is a maximum two-year experience, so I began the search for a place where I could continue this life and work long-term.

 

Peter protesting with Jeff Dietrich from the LACW

After my time in Philadelphia I traveled a bit, then settled in San Francisco, finding a job at a senior meal site in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco operated by the Salvation Army. A friend from Philadelphia who had joined the Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) encouraged me to visit there as she knew how moved I had been by the writings of Dorothy Day. My visit to the LACW fulfilled my expectations of the Catholic Worker Movement. They operated a free dining room on LA’s gritty Skid Row, lived together in a large house in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles where they offered hospitality to guests from their dining room, and regularly protested against war and unjust social structures. The Catholic Workers I met were serious about their faith, but not piously churchy; devoted to justice and service, but not afraid to have fun and get a bit rowdy, more akin to “reforming rottens” than “holy holies.” Being a “reforming rotten” myself, I felt right at home. I realized I didn’t have to be a saint to be a Catholic Worker and far from being severe and dour, the life of a Catholic Worker was usually fun and full of joy.

I soon quit my job in San Francisco and joined the LACW. I settled into the work and life of the Catholic Worker. Far from having a two-year shelf life like the JVC, the Catholic Worker encourages a life-long commitment. I felt I had finally found my spiritual and vocational home where I could live out my faith through the daily practice of the Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. My journey to justice could end here, but there was to be one more stop.

I fully expected to spend many years at the LACW, but three years into my time there I met Kate Chatfield who was doing a year of JVC and was also interested in the Catholic Worker. We started dating and quickly decided to get married and after her JVC year she joined the LACW. Shortly before we got married, we realized we wanted to operate our own Catholic Worker House, preferably in the Bay Area. On our honeymoon we met with Larry Purcell and Jan Johannson of the Redwood City Catholic Worker as Kate had read they were looking to assist a young couple get started in their own house. After a surprisingly short interview Larry and Jan offered us money to purchase a house to be used as a Catholic Worker house of hospitality. We quickly accepted their offer. (I mean, really, we’re not stupid. How could we not say “yes?”)

 

Present day in the kitchen of the shelter at St. Bruno’s Church. 

Within the year we had purchased a large house in San Bruno CA that would be our Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, had started our own free dining room, and were expecting our first child. Twenty-five years later Kate and I are still living a life of faith-based social justice. Kate has since moved on to work as an attorney, initially as a criminal defence attorney serving the poor and disenfranchised, and now working on criminal justice reform. I’m still working at Catholic Worker Hospitality House. While one’s journey of faith and justice should never end, when I found the Catholic Worker I knew I had discovered my path, and when we started our own Catholic Worker House in San Bruno I knew I was home.

The aim of this letter has not been to draw attention to myself, but rather show that if I can do this, anyone can. There is nothing special about me, or my story. The only important thing is the commitment to love God and serve the people of God. To quote the Letter of St. James, “If you seek the way of God, then God will show you the way.” (James 4:8) Time and time again in my life I have been provided the things I needed to live a faith-filled life of service. All I had to do was take the vital steps to seek and keep seeking. I feel very blessed for all the opportunities that have been given to me, realizing all the good things in my life have come about because of this quest. I know I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, and, unfortunately, will probably make a lot more. Still, I strive to be a witness to my faith and make the world a better place in small and large ways.

 

In Christ’s Peace,

Peter Stiehler
For all of us at
Catholic Worker Hospitality House

 

There is a saying popular with long-time Catholic Workers, “The gold leaves and the dross stays.” Whenever I start to get self-righteous about my years as a Catholic Worker I think of all the “golden” co-workers who have gone on to bigger and better things while I have remained.

April Appeal

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Catholic Worker Hospitality House. In our February letter we wrote about how Kate and I started the house, the people who were invaluable in its foundation, and how we have continued the work over the years. In this letter I want to talk about the work itself, how it started and grew, and our hopes for the future.

Dear Friends,

At Catholic Worker Hospitality House we are committed to the daily practice of the Works of Mercy. To that end we operate a free dining room five mornings a week, a year-round homeless shelter, three affordable housing units, and a transitional house for individuals coming out of prison. It’s a fairly impressive list of projects for such a small organization (he said not so humbly), but how did it happen? How did all these service projects grow from a simple house of hospitality?

When we were dreaming about starting a Catholic Worker House there were two things we knew for sure: we would offer hospitality to those in need and we would operate a free dining room. During our time at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, I developed a love of working at a free dining room and wanted to start one of our own. I know it’s best to be open to the needs of the community and not impose one’s own selfish interests, but this selfish impulse has had very positive rewards. The dining room allowed us to get familiar with the people and needs of the community. All of the projects we now operate grew out of our work at the dining room.

While we had a desire to start a dining room, a big concern was finding a place where we could actually operate said dining room. Luckily our geographical parish was St. Bruno’s Catholic Church and even luckier was the fact that Fr. Ron Burke was the pastor. Fr. Burke had spent his priestly career not only administering the sacraments, but also working to create a more just and equitable world for the poor and outcast. When we approached him with the proposal of using a building on parish grounds for a dining room he was very supportive of the idea, but said we would need approval from the parish council. When some members of the parish council raised doubts regarding the wisdom of our proposal, it was Fr. Burke’s vocal support that swayed the council to allow us to open our dining room. The most vocal opponent was long-time parishioner Helen Geyer. I remember her muttering, “What a stupid idea.” But once she got to know the folks we serve and saw that we operated a nice program, she became one of our biggest supporters. Over the years there have been many parishioners and neighbors who were initially opposed to our work, but who later became very supportive. We are so thankful for the support and hospitality St. Bruno’s has shown us over the years as it has enabled us to be of service to those in need in our community.

After operating the dining room for a couple of years, the new pastor, Fr. Rene Gomez, asked us to attend a meeting regarding the issue of homeless people sleeping in the church at night. The problem arose from the parish hosting Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a particularly Catholic form of piety in which the Blessed Sacrament (consecrated communion wafer) is displayed in a monstrance with at least one person always in prayer before it. Once it became known that the church was always open, homeless individuals started seeking refuge there at night. To the great credit of the parish leadership their attitude was, “How can we worship the Body of Christ on one hand and then turn around and kick out the body of Christ in our midst?” The solution we offered was for the parish to allow Catholic Worker to operate (and pay for) a homeless shelter out of the same building we ran the dining room. That way the Body of Christ could be honored in both forms while keeping the church sanctuary reserved for Adoration and Masses. Our proposal was accepted and in a short time we were operating a homeless shelter for eight adults every night.

Our first house at 2nd Avenue in San Bruno.

For the next couple of years we continued operating both the dining room and homeless shelter. But with the affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area becoming ever more severe I started noticing the same folks rotating through our shelter. They would stay with us for a while, then rotate through one or more of the county shelters, maybe camp for a while or stay with a friend, but rarely, if ever, finding permanent affordable housing. It was especially galling to see folks working full-time or receiving a pension who could not find permanent affordable housing. We started thinking that maybe we could create some of that needed housing.
My initial idea was to rent a house in the area that would provide stable affordable housing. We envisioned folks paying a portion of the rent and also volunteering in the community. We received a grant from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to subsidize the rent on the house and found a landlord willing to rent to us. The project worked well for three years with the residents proving themselves good tenants and roommates. Those residents who were physically able also did a good amount of community service. However, it became apparent that this model was not financially sustainable as it was dependent upon receiving grants to keep the housing going. While the project didn’t work out as I imagined, we did learn that we could operate affordable housing if we could make it financially feasible. As we were coming to these realizations our house at 672 Second Ave became available for housing those we serve.

The garden in front of the Chapman House in South San Francisco.

Using the Second Ave house proved an ideal way of creating permanent affordable housing in the community, as we owned the building. We only needed to cover the expenses of taxes, insurance, and utilities. A very modest rent from each resident, based on each one’s ability to pay, could easily cover these expenses; no grant would be needed to make this project feasible. So in 2007 we opened the house for permanent affordable housing for some of our dining room and shelter guests. We all need and deserve dignified dependable housing as well as meaningful relationships, and the Second Ave house provides just that that for the residents. The project proved such a success that a few years later the Redwood City Catholic Worker gave us money to purchase another house to expand this work, thus Chapman House in South San Francisco came into existence. We now had two houses that provided permanent affordable housing for some of the folks we serve. When someone moves into the house they feel like they have won the lottery. “You mean I get to live in this nice house…for this little rent…permanently?” One resident of Chapman House who had been homeless for the fifteen years I had known him kept asking me when he had to move out. “As long as you pay rent and are a good roommate you have a home.”

The Masson House in San Bruno.

In 2012 we were once again able to expand the housing we provide. We had received a bequest by long-time volunteer Tony Olivas of a four-unit apartment building on Rollins Rd in Burlingame. For the next year we operated the house with the tenants we inherited, mostly working class individuals. But in 2013 we decided to sell the building as it became clear that maintenance issues would make it an ongoing financial drain and I also wanted to focus my energy and our resources on housing folks who wouldn’t be able to find housing elsewhere. Kate agreed to selling the apartment building ONLY if we bought a house for a young family who lived there. At the time they had three young children, one with special needs, and were living in a one-bedroom apartment. We wanted to assist them as they had been so kind in caring for Tony Olivas during his final illness. Also it felt right to assist a young family get into stable affordable housing as we had been assisted when we were newly married. With the money from the sale of the apartment building we were able to purchase a very cute three-bedroom house in San Bruno for the family, as well as add on another bedroom, bathroom, and expanded deck to the Second Ave house, and pay off the mortgage of the Chapman House (thus enabling us to lower the rent for the tenants there).

The Peralta House in West Oakland.

The final addition to our work was in 2018 with the purchase of Peralta House in west Oakland to serve as transitional housing for individuals coming out of prison. This project arose out of Kate’s work with criminal justice reform, which included assisting inmates at San Quentin state prison who were soon to be paroled after many years of incarceration. Not surprising, there is a real lack of housing options for those folks. When money became available (once again from the Redwood City Catholic Worker), we purchased Peralta House that now provides transitional housing for four individuals. With Kate’s supervision the project is working wonderfully and meeting a great need. It is always moving to experience the gratitude and renewed hope the residents have for the opportunity to start their lives anew.

I know this letter has made it seem that everything we tried worked out wonderfully, as if we went from success to success in our work, but the reality is that not all of our “great ideas” have worked out. We tried doing an after-school tutoring program that never caught on, the same with a day labor program. Then there were projects that worked for a while, then fizzled out: a twice weekly produce distribution, the above mentioned subsidized housing with volunteering, a law clinic, and a project where recent college graduates lived and worked with us for a year or two. While we’ve been happy with our successes and accepting of our “failures,” we’ve tried to remember that all our service projects are “experiments in truth” (to quote Gandhi). Success or failure isn’t as important as trying our best to faithfully respond to the needs of those we serve.

So what does the future hold for Catholic Worker Hospitality House? Our primary focus is to continue operating the dining room, homeless shelter, and our various housing projects. Stability and continuity are not very exciting, but are vitally important to those we serve. We are also in the preliminary planning stages of building an auxiliary dwelling unit (ADU) in the backyard of the Second Ave House. It’s something we’ve dreamed about for years and with recent changes in state laws and city ordinances this dream is about to become reality. We are excited about the possibility of creating more permanent affordable housing for those we serve. We will keep you updated on the progress of this project.

In looking back over this letter I’m amazed and humbled at what we’ve been able to achieve the past twenty-five years and so thankful for the opportunity to devote ourselves to this work. It seems so effortless in the retelling, but there was a lot of struggle in the birthing and rearing of these projects. One thing we learned is that because we were committed to the work and proved to be responsible and dependable stewards of the resources given to us, support came to make our dreams a reality. All that we have done, all that we continue to do, and all that we hope to do are made possible by your past and, hopefully, ongoing support of our work with those in need in our community. We thank you for your past support and hope that you will continue to help to keep our work going.

 

In Christ’s Peace,

Peter Stiehler

For all of us at

Catholic Worker Hospitality House

Vaccination Clinic at the Dining Room!

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

Last Thursday, the Catholic Worker Hospitality House dining room was the site of COVID-19 vaccination clinic. San Mateo County Street Medicine team was there to administer shots to 20 of our guests, staff, and volunteers. We were so happy to be able to provide a space for this much needed service. They will be back in two weeks to vaccinate another 20 people.

Rest in Peace, Eddison James

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

It is with much sadness and a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Eddison James last Tuesday. He passed away quietly in his sleep.  Eddison was a fixture at the dining room and shelter for over twenty years, first as a regular guest, then as a resident in our boarding homes, and then as a staff person at the shelter for over over ten years.  Two years ago he had a series of health issues that prevented him from continuing to work at the shelter or live at the Second Ave. house.  After a long stay in the hospital he moved into a board and care house in Redwood City where I would visit him regularly. He was always a joyful presence at the dining room where he made guests and volunteers alike feel welcomed and appreciated.  I was always impressed by how gracious he was to all.  He has been and will continue to be greatly missed.

Eddison (center) with other regulars – Susan, Dave, and Kathy