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stclaresm Franciscan sisters open Clare Guest House

By KATIE LEFEBVRE, Globe staff reporter

The Clare Guest House, a new transitional home for women who are released from prison in the third judicial district, was open to the public to see on Oct. 14. Clare Guest House is located at 1918 Douglas St. in Sioux City.

People from the Siouxland community as well as neighbors to the house attended the open house.

Clare Guest House is a project of the Sioux City Multicultural Neighborhood Project of the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque. Sisters Mary Lee Cox, OSF; Shirley Waldschmitt, OSF; and Grace Ann Witte, OSF, are all part of the neighborhood project.

Sister Grace Ann noted that the house was vacant and the sisters realized that there was not a place for women to go when they came out of prison. It will be the only facility of its kind in northwest Iowa for women leaving prison.

"I think the three of us (in the Multicultural Neighborhood Project) talked about it and it just seemed like a good project for us to do," said Sister Grace Ann. "We presented this idea to our area group of sisters and immediately we sensed their support. The larger Franciscan community from the area has also been very supportive."

Sister Grace Ann explained that the sisters put together a ministries grant that was approved by the Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque. There is a committee of sisters that reviews the grants and they were also supportive of the project.

The house was named after St. Clare, stated Sister Mary Lee. On a doorframe that is visible when entering the house, there is a painting of St. Clare to show her presence in the house.

"I am a Franciscan because I love Francis, and I only got to know Clare through Francis," said Sister Mary Lee. "When I found out how hospitable Clare was to the lepers of her time, I thought how often people in prison are considered the lepers of today. I think that we in this house want to offer the same hospitality that Clare offered to the lepers."

Sister Gwen Hennessey, OSF, will be the house manager meaning she will live in the house with the women.

"We will try to form a community and we will work together - meals, cleaning, recreation," said Sister Gwen. "I have to enforce some of the rules like curfew and no one brings in alcohol or drugs."

The home seeks to provide a place where motivated women can find a supportive community as they seek employment, find housing and reenter society.

"I have had experience in prison myself," said Sister Gwen. "I had done civil disobedience at the School of the Americas. That had a lot to do with why I went to prison and why I am concerned about the women after living in prison. I know that they need a fair shake. They need to have a chance to get back on their feet, get back into society, get back with their loved ones."

Many women may leave prison without financial help or the resources of supportive family or friends.

"Minimum wage is so inadequate for people to get back on their feet," said Sister Gwen. "We are saying that the women should be back on their feet in three to six months. Minimum wage for most of them or even less is a cruelty in our society."

Clare Guest House believes that every woman is created in the image and likeness of God and therefore has dignity and deserves respect; has the ability to grow and deserves support in her development; and needs healthy relationships and deserves to live in a safe and secure community regardless of race, religion, age, sexual orientation or disability.

"We want women to have the opportunity to have a chance. We believe they have the right to a good beginning," said Sister Waldschmitt. "Studies show that if anyone who has been in prison can have help or support in their first weeks or months out, their chances of success are much higher."

The sisters have created an application that women will complete before being considered as guests in the house. After reviewing the applications and talking to the warden at the prison, references and the women themselves will be interviewed. The women will come primarily from the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women in Mitchellville. There are also two other facilities in the state the women could come from.

"Initially, all of our women will come out on parole, so we will have the benefit of the cooperation of parole officers," said Sister Grace Ann. "That gives us more confidence."

Sister Mary Lee commented that the sisters helping the project went to Mitchellville to see where the women would be coming from.

"To get into that environment helped me to understand where they are coming from which inspirited me to work harder to get this home ready as a hospitable place for them," said Sister Mary Lee.

The general length of stay at the house will be about two months to six months, mentioned Sister Grace Ann.

Clare Guest House also believes that every woman returning from prison deserves support in the transition toward fully responsible citizenship; a mentor who will facilitate this transition; the opportunity to experience respectful community living; and assistance in finding employment and housing.

Sister Shirley Fineran, OSF, will facilitate the mentoring for the women staying in the guest house. Each woman will have a mentor from the Sioux City community during the time she is staying the house.

"The reason we are doing this is so that each woman has one person in the community who can really be a friend to her and be another person to help her transition into the community," said Sister Fineran.

The women and mentors will have an activity once a week all together as well as having one-on-one time with the woman and her mentor.

Senior art students from Heelan High School in Sioux City have been painting in the basement of the house. Laurie Dougherty, art teacher at Heelan, was contacted by Sister Mary Lee and Dougherty jumped at the chance to help.

"The students have worked hard in their art class time here as well as on their service day to make the basement a beautiful hospitable place - a resident area, a recreational area," said Sister Mary Lee. "The colors are bright and beautiful."

Students from Spalding in Granville also came to the house to help. They carried items into the house and helped with things inside and outside the house. According to Sister Waldschmitt, the students worked very hard.

"We have found how generous people in the greater Siouxland area are for the project," said Sister Mary Lee. "I know there are many things happening in our world and they still have a sensitivity for their neighbor here in Sioux City."

Briar Cliff students helped move in the initial beds and dressers, washed windows outside and helped scrub and clean the house.

These different students along with several others have put in many hours of work to benefit the women.

Sister Grace Ann added that several social agencies have contacted the sisters to let them know of services available for the women.

The guest house has ongoing needs including paper products, cleaning products, personal toiletries, laundry detergent, bed linens, towels and washcloths, volunteer time and talent, food and financial donations. Send or bring donations to Sister Gwen Hennessey, Clare Guest House, 1918 Douglas St., Sioux City, IA 51104. She can also be contacted at (712) 255-1916 or .

copyright 2009 Clare Guest House, a 503c Non-profitGrant