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

Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

September Appeal

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

SEPTEMBER 2021

Dear Friends,

This past spring while discussing edits to our anniversary newsletter with my daughter Ella, she remarked, “You know Dad, it seems that most of the projects at Catholic Worker Hospitality House that have been successful over the years have been the ones to do with housing.”  I had never thought of that before, but she was right.  Whether it’s our emergency homeless shelter, our transitional housing for people coming out of prison or our various permanent affordable housing units, there is such a need for housing that it’s hard to go wrong.  At the risk of spouting a cliché: “If you build it they will come.”

I think particularly about our boarding houses.  Whenever someone has the opportunity to get a room in one of our houses they feel like they’ve won the lottery.  They are shocked to learn that they’ll have their own room in a nice house for such a minimal rent.  I let them know that as long as they keep the place clean, are a good roommate, and pay rent, they’ll have a room for as long as they like. I always tell them, “This is permanent housing; it’s neither short term nor transitional.”  

Catholic Worker Hospitality House exists to respond to the needs of our community and over the years we have tried a variety of projects to address different problems our guests face.  This disbelief our boarding house residents feel when they’re first invited to live in one of our houses is due to how unaffordable living has become in the Bay Area.  In the Bay Area there is the one overarching problem that permeates everything – the high cost of housing.  With rent prices soaring for decades, even when our guests have full-time jobs or are receiving Social Security checks, those we serve are often unable to pay the exorbitant price of rent that has now become “normal.”  It should not be normal for people to be working full-time jobs and still struggle to feed and house themselves.  Therefore, it’s not really surprising that our housing projects have been the most successful. It’s the greatest issue our guests face and the biggest problem in our community.  So of course the profoundest way we can impact their lives is by providing affordable, permanent housing. 

It’s an obvious problem with an obvious solution, but it took us a while to realize that we had the ability to provide some of this much-needed affordable housing.  We had been operating our dining room and homeless shelter for ten years before we started using the Second Ave house in San Bruno as a boarding house fifteen years ago and it was such a success that when money became available we purchased a house in South San Francisco to provide more housing, then later added on to the Second Ave house when funds once again became available.  We are always looking for an opportunity to increase the amount of permanent affordable housing we are able to offer those we serve as the need just continues to increase.

Artist rendering of what our ADU will look like.

This house under construction, while not ours, is exactly what our ADU will look like and has the same architectural plans.

Well, we’re expanding again. For at least 15 years Kate and I have dreamed of building an ADU (auxiliary dwelling unit, “in-law unit”) in the backyard of our Second Ave. house.  Until recently city zoning restrictions prevented us from doing so, but over the past few years state mandated changes to those regulations now make it possible for us to build the ADU of our dreams.  This ADU will allow us to expand the amount of permanent affordable housing we are able to provide to those we serve at our dining room and homeless shelter.

After years of dreaming and planning, events are now moving fast.  In mid-July we received final approval of our building plans from the San Bruno building department.  As I write in late August we are deciding upon a contractor and expect to break ground on the project in early September.  If all goes well the ADU will be completed and occupied by January or February of 2022.  We will keep you apprised of the building progress in upcoming newsletters, as well as on our website and Facebook page.

Can you help us make this dream a reality? We expect the project to cost $350,000.  We have already raised $200,000, but will need another $150,000 to complete the project. We realize this is a huge sum of money, but it has been our experience over the years that many people giving whatever they can allows us to do great things.  Any amount you can give will be helpful in enabling us to complete this project.

As always we thank you for your ongoing support of our work.  Your generosity enables us to not only maintain our current service projects, but to have the courage to make our big dreams a reality.

 

In Christ’s Peace,

 

Peter Stiehler

For all of us at

Catholic Worker Hospitality House

 

In Loving Memory of Michael Thompson

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

On Tuesday, August 24 2021 Mike Thompson passed away after a long battle with lung cancer.   Mike was a life-long San Bruno resident and long-time resident of our Second Ave boarding house.  We were able to host in-home hospice care for Mike for most of his illness, but he spent his final three weeks at St. Francis Convalescent Pavilion in Daly City.  We first got to know Mike twenty years ago as a guest at our dining room and homeless shelter.  Thirteen years ago when we turned our Second Ave house into a boarding home Mike was one of the first people I brought into the house.  I quickly came to depend on Mike as the informal house manager.  He would take out the trash, wash the shelter laundry, and let me know if there were any problems at the house.   His presence made my job much easier and the house a nicer place for the other residents. 

Hanging out on the back porch together, Mike and I often bonded over sports.  In typical male fashion it was always a safe and easy source of conversation.  We had our yearly big money bet ($1) on the Texas-Oklahoma football game.  Having been born in Oklahoma, Mike was a fan of the “land-thieves” from north of the Red River.  While it was fun to watch the game together, I sadly often lost the bet.  

At Catholic Worker we too often only see our guests at their worst or “past their prime.”  In 2013 we got to see a different side of Mike.  Mike grew up in the Rollingwood neighborhood of San Bruno and attended Crestmoor High School and was featured in the book “Michael and the Whiz Kids” by John Christgau.  Christgau was the head coach of the school’s “lightweight basketball” team (a high school league for smaller players).  The book chronicled the team’s 1968 championship season, focusing on what it was like for Mike as the only black kid on the team and in the school.  The book was a good read and it gave me an opportunity to see a different side of Mike.

Living at the Second Ave house enabled Mike to restore stability and dignity to his life.  This led to him reconnecting with his son and grandchildren after years of marginal contact.   It was always heartening seeing Mike and his son spending time together, usually they just talked and argued about sports, but it was easy to tell they enjoyed each other’s company.  I loved the backyard cookouts and domino games that Mike would host with his family and friends which brought such joy to the house. 

We are so thankful to have had Mike be a part of our work and life for over twenty years.  He was a blessing and a joy, even with his grumpy old man façade.  Rest in peace Mike, you will be greatly missed.

Mike Thompson on the back porch of the Second Avenue house.

From a Sapling to an Oak Tree

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

Recently I was doing some yard work at our Second Ave house in San Bruno when I stopped to look at the two large oak trees in the front yard. My thought was, “How did these trees get so big?” These oaks are so large and stately that it would be easy to assume that they have been around for generations. The truth is Kate and I planted these oaks 25 years ago as spindly saplings in one-gallon pots. At the time it would have been generous to call them trees. For years it was a challenge to keep them from being overgrown by grass and run over by the lawnmower. Over the years these spindly saplings grew into bushy awkward trees and finally, with some timely pruning, they have become stately trees.

Since we planted these trees shortly after we moved into the house, I often equate their growth and maturity with the growth and maturity of the Catholic Worker Hospitality House in San Bruno. Most of our supporters have known us only for the past five to ten years, after we were already a fairly mature organization. It’s easy to forget that we went through years of being an awkward organization struggling to find our way. Just as I mused over how the trees got so stately, I often wonder how our little Catholic Worker House grew from one house of hospitality and dining room to now having a homeless shelter and four houses of hospitality. It still amazes me. But with patience, perseverance, “pruning,” some luck, and a ton of support we have grown into a mature organization that, we hope, is a valued presence in the community serving those most in need.

Your generous and faithful support over the years has enabled our work to grow from a “spindly sapling to a stately oak.” We thank you for your past support and hope that you will continue to help us not only to continue our work of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and comforting the afflicted, but of dreaming of new ways to serve those in need in our community.

Peace,

Peter Stiehler
Director
Catholic Worker Hospitality House

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.