By Linda Lutton

For the first time in years, the convent at Saint Alphonsus Parish was full last week. A teapot sat on the old six-burner Magic Chef stove, the pantry bulged, and 22 formerly homeless women unpacked and settled into their new home.

This home nearly wasn’t. When Saint Alphonsus announced in April 1997 that it intended to turn its nearly empty convent into housing for homeless women, it didn’t anticipate the bitter yearlong fight that would follow. Leasing the convent to Deborah’s Place, a respected nonprofit that provides housing and support services to women, seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing for a Catholic church to do. And the old convent at Oakdale and Greenview–once home to 44 of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the order that ran the parish school–seemed an ideal site for Marah’s, the transitional housing program of Deborah’s Place.

“It’s a really specific kind of program, so there aren’t a lot of structures that work,” says Mary Coy, development director for Deborah’s Place. “Convent buildings work really well, because you’ve got these small bedrooms and large communal spaces.” The sisters were dwindling in number, says Coy, and intended to leave. “Saint Alphonsus needed to find an appropriate use that would bring in income and also something that they felt fulfilled their mission–they didn’t want to sell it and put in condos and just make money. So it was a really good fit.”

The controversy began when South Lakeview Neighbors, a 36-year-old neighborhood association, voted to oppose the project. What about the proximity of the parish school to the convent? they asked. What about safety? They had concerns about density if so many women moved into a community of single-family homes. Thirty-second Ward alderman Terry Gabinski, whose support was needed to get a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, said he’d only endorse the plan if South Lakeview Neighbors did.

What followed was a massive grassroots campaign to convince Gabinski that South Lakeview Neighbors did not speak for everyone. Supporters of Deborah’s Place collected 800 signatures from the immediate neighborhood and 3,000 in all, and their candlelight vigil attracted 800. The Lakeview Action Coalition and the Lakeview Clergy Association took up the cause, which spread into neighboring communities. “Congregations in West Town and Logan Square and Lincoln Park and Uptown supported the campaign and collected signatures in their congregations,” says John McDermott, executive director of the Lakeview Action Coalition. “People were speaking from the pulpit. There were entire congregations that would come to church on Sunday that would know the saga up to that point and want to hear the latest developments.”

Meanwhile, developers eyed the convent–a large corner building in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood–and made million-dollar offers. Deborah’s Place supporters discovered that developers interested in the convent had given campaign contributions to Gabinski, and one, Robert Mosky, was also a donor to South Lakeview Neighbors. “There was not-in-my-backyard opposition,” says McDermott. “There was serious racist opposition, people spreading racial warnings door-to-door. But there was also this kind of iron triangle that linked the developers and the alderman and the neighborhood association together.”

South Lakeview Neighbors refused for six months to consider a revised plan, and it temporarily froze membership to keep a revote from going the other way. Deborah’s Place made presentations that responded to the group’s concerns, but the opposition continued and Gabinski held out. But even Cardinal George spoke up for Deborah’s Place, and on the day before the zoning board hearing, the alderman made a 180-degree turn and backed the project. Some 110 supporters showed up at the hearing, compared with 10 opponents. The zoning board’s decision was announced five days later, a unanimous vote for Deborah’s Place.

Barbara Potter was not around for any of that. As the average stay at Marah’s is only 11 months, most of the women moving into Saint Alphonsus last week from Marah’s former site at Division and Noble were not there for the controversy that preceded their arrival. “This is my penthouse,” said a jubilant Potter, showing off her 9-by-12-foot corner bedroom. Potter had been a Lakeview resident for years before she fell into homelessness; her children had attended the nearby Prescott School.

“It’s beautiful,” says Potter of the building, which underwent a $1.9 million renovation. “It’s life, and I never lived before. From here I intend to find a good job and a good place to live and support Marah’s for other women that need it.” Potter will make use of an on-site learning center that has computers, sewing machines, and a library. All the women at Marah’s–which is their last stop before they transition to permanent housing–either work, attend school, or participate in training or treatment programs. All residents pay 30 percent of their income as a monthly program fee; those who pay in full and on time get the money back when they leave. They can participate in a savings incentive program that matches every dollar they save with 50 cents, up to $1,000. The women have access to education and employment services and to case-management and therapeutic counseling.

Tensions ran so high during the fight over Deborah’s Place that some neighbors still don’t speak to each other. But those active in the struggle say the fight actually built community. People came together to work for something they believed in.

“We’re moving into a neighborhood with stronger ties to neighbors than we’ve had in any other neighborhood we’ve been in,” says Sister Patricia Crowley, executive director of Deborah’s Place. “We know people that live right on this block.” Crowley says some Lakeview neighbors are now volunteers. One member of Saint Alphonsus who’d never heard of Deborah’s Place before the controversy now sits on the organization’s board of directors.

“Some of the women were unfamiliar with this neighborhood, so they were a little fearful,” says Crowley, though for months those same women had been frightening residents. “Some of the neighbors had them over, walked them around the neighborhood, and showed them what was there–invited them over to their yard, and they sat outside and had a cold drink. That kind of thing is very different than what we’ve had, because we’ve kind of been quiet. People haven’t known we’re there.”

Lakeview resident Barbara Mahany says the contentiousness in the community seems to have evaporated, “and hopefully it’ll just forever vanish.” In a speech during an open house at Marah’s last Saturday, Mahany held up a five-pound bag of sugar and told residents, “If you ever need a cup of sugar from your new neighbors, don’t be afraid to ask. We’ve got plenty.”

Mahany sits on a neighborhood advisory team formed to address problems Lakeview residents might have with Marah’s. Though there’s representation from South Lakeview Neighbors, the team is made up mostly of supporters, and Mahany says her personal goal is to let the women of Marah’s know the neighborhood is behind them. “There are deep and die-hard supporters here,” she says. “This neighborhood should celebrate, and that’s I think the way a lot of us saw it the whole time. This is a wonderful thing. As neighborhoods are threatening to become yuppified and without a soul, this is precisely what the doctor should order.”

On Saturday Deborah’s Place supporters filled the serene courtyard garden behind the convent and reflected on their victory. School Sisters who had lived in the convent decades before visited their old bedrooms and chapel, now called the “meditation room,” tried out the new elevator, and ate together again in the dining room. “This is a continuation of the community life that we have always felt was important,” says Sister Irene Bopp, who grew up in the neighborhood, graduated from Saint Alphonsus school, and later lived in the convent and eventually served as the school’s principal. “As I went through this building I could just feel the presence of the sisters who had lived here in the past.”

Bopp spoke out for Deborah’s Place during the campaign. “I think in building community there is always a division of opinion, and you just have to keep working at it to come up with a unified direction. Even in a family not everyone agrees all the time. It’s fear of the unknown, because these are very, very good people.”

As for South Lakeview Neighbors, president David DiCorpo says members are taking a “wait and see” attitude. He says the renovated convent “looks absolutely incredible from the outside,” that he doesn’t anticipate any problems, and that South Lakeview Neighbors is encouraging its membership to visit Deborah’s Place and check it out for themselves. “Unfortunately, this turned into a big media frenzy. It was a very ugly chapter in this neighborhood. It was handled very poorly, and what became a fight never needed to become a fight. Names never needed to be called.”

Inside Marah’s, where new windows and fresh paint make the convent feel airy and peaceful, there’s an overwhelming sense that yesterday’s opposition simply doesn’t matter anymore. “Now that the women are here I think there’s a huge heart beating here,” says Mahany, “and this has been a building without a pulse for a long time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.