Lancaster Hospitality Houses

By Angie Koch, Good Work News, June 2004

We need Houses of Hospitality to show what idealism looks like when it is practised.
-Peter Maurin

Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, Peter Maurin — the visionary with whom Dorothy Day founded The Catholic Worker newspaper — put forward a 3- step program for addressing social ill and transforming society a place where human needs are met and “it is easier for people to be good.” The three planks in Maurin’s platform were; roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought; houses of hospitality where those from varying levels of income and degrees of schooling could be fed and sheltered together; and farming communes where people could earn an honest living by the sweat of their own brows.

Next to the newspaper itself, Houses of Hospitality are the best-known legacy of the Catholic Worker Movement. Over the past 70 years, more than 185 Catholic Worker Houses have sprouted up around the US and the rest of the world, each practicing its own brand of hospitality.

While not formally a Catholic Worker House, the Lancaster Hospitality Houses were conceived in the spirit of the Catholic Worker model. The original house at 79 Lancaster Street was purchased by The Working Centre in 1996 with the vision of creating a welcoming, communal space where hospitality could be extended to volunteers and others in need of temporary housing. It first functioned as a home for people volunteering at The Working Centre whose good work The Working Centre wanted to support and sustain in a tangible way.

One of the first residents at the house was Margaret Maika, a Sister of Providence, who dreamed up the idea of creating a sewing space at The Working Centre. Through this community tools project, machines and classes were made available to new Canadians and any others interested in sewing their own clothes or items to sell. During the six years that she voluntarily ran the sewing project at The Working Centre, Margaret provided a consistent, grounding presence at 79 Lancaster St. and created a home which other volunteers were able to share on a more temporary basis.

In 2002, the particular way in which hospitality was extended at 79 Lancaster St. started to expand. The house continued to provide shelter for a number of WWOOFers and other Working Centre volunteers, but refugee family was also welcomed at the house upon their initial arrival Canada. Conversations with Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support led to the idea of creating a home where refugee claimants could stay while they looked for m permanent housing in the Kitchener area and sorted through the process claiming refugee status in Canada. At the end of the year, the neighbour house at 87 Lancaster St. purchased as well, with I expectation that a greater number refugee claimants could be received.

Over the past two years, The Working Centre and the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS) have worked cooperatively to extend hospitality to refugee claimants who arrive in the KW community with little more than the clothes on their backs. This not just emergency shared housing, but, in the words Eunice Valenzuela of MCRS, friendly, welcoming place where the loneliness and stress of being new and different can be put aside for awhile Guests receive not only lodging, but also settlement assistance at the MCB office; social support through recreational activities, the Speak English Café, communally share meals, and the work of a live-in house coordinator; and assistance finding permanent housing and furniture from The Housing Desk once they are ready to move out. However, more important than these services is the concept that no one is identified as a client, but rather each new arrival invited as a guest and encouraged to make the houses their home.

We live in a culture where hospitality is most immediately thought of as an, industry. When we speak of being hospitable, it is usually in the context of welcoming and entertaining those who are already friends – people with whom we are likely to have a fair bit in common. Either hospitality is something paid for, or else it is extended in a context of obligation or assumed reciprocity. But genuine hospitality is better defined as simply the warm and generous reception of guests – a spirit of authenticity in the welcome offered to guests or strangers, regardless of whether they are known or even familiar.

As Homer writes in The Odyssey:

“Rudeness to a stranger is not decency, poor though [that stranger] may be, poorer than you. All wanderers and beggars come from Zeus… The city that forgets how to care for a stranger has forgotten how to care for itself.”

Hospitality extends community. It mediated the public and the private – inviting others to share mutually in the intimacy of home rather than simply offering one-way assistance in the impersonality of a neutral public environment.

“By exercising hospitality, the hosts open up their homes somewhat to the public or the common, whereas the stranger, vulnerable and alone in the public world, then finds shelter in the private sphere of a home. Hospitality does not try to remake the guest in the image of the host, but provides space for strangers to be themselves.... Hospitality creates openings in the boundaries which define the home.” (Fr. Hugh Feiss of the Franciscan Monastery of the Ascension)

Over the past eight years the community at the Lancaster Hospitality Houses has included quite a diversity of people sleeping, eating and living within its walls. The houses have been home to Sisters, local and international volunteers engaged in a wide variety of Working Centre projects and activities, and refugee claimants from Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East.

The development of Working Centre intern positions that would offer students and others a place to live while learning contributing their labour and skills is in the works. Other possibilities include adding some potential rooms and washrooms and using the garage space for added community tool projects such as a greenhouse or woodworking shop. The Lancaster Hospitality Houses have the potential to be a resource which benefits not only house guests, but also the surrounding neighbourhood and broader community.

The ongoing creation of a common home shared by volunteer workers, refugee claimants and others goes beyond the mere provision of shelter. At best, it is a diverse and gracious community where all feel warmly welcomed and genuinely at home. At very least, it is an opportunity to put our ideals into practice, living into a culture of hospitality and learning what it looks like as we go.

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