Parishioners are ‘living stones’ of Mercy House project

Volunteers Ana Rincon, right, and Carolina Keenan load up a family's car with needed items at Mercy House, a new outreach program of St. Pius X Parish. Photo: Stephen Brashear Volunteers Ana Rincon, right, and Carolina Keenan load up a family's car with needed items at Mercy House, a new outreach program of St. Pius X Parish. Photo: Stephen Brashear

For more than two years, St. Pius X Parish has been raising money to build Mercy House, a $1.2 million outreach center envisioned on the parish campus to serve those in need in south Snohomish County.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Realizing “there are people who are losing their jobs and people who don’t have savings and are going to be in need right now,” the parish couldn’t wait for the new building before expanding its outreach efforts, said Father Cal Christiansen, pastor of St. Pius in Mountlake Terrace since 2013.

“We decided to launch Mercy House in a virtual way,” he said.

Working quickly, parishioners from the Respect Life committee/Prepares program converted a parish social room into a distribution center with diapers, clothing and other items for pregnant women and families with young children. The parish’s chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, responding to increasing requests for help with rent, also provided the center with emergency food bags for families in need.

Observing physical distancing, the volunteers began making appointments for families to come to the parish parking lot and pick up needed items.

The groups were able to help the growing number of people in need with thousands of dollars in grants obtained by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, a collaborator on the Mercy House project.

By the end of May, more than 500 families had been helped, with SVdP giving over $19,000 in rent, utility and food assistance and Prepares distributing more than $4,000 in diapers, formula and baby wipes.

The pandemic has shown parishioners that Mercy House is about more than a future building, said Marisela Ortiz Abraham, coordinator of the Respect Life committee. It’s about “a community that is willing to [help others] with the means you have at that moment,” she said.

“We are the living stones in that building. I think that’s a beautiful blessing that the Lord has given us.”

Marisela Ortiz Abraham, left, coordinates the Respect Life committee, which collaborates at Mercy House with the parishʼs St. Vincent de Paul conference. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Bringing Catholic partners together

The idea of Mercy House grew out of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis in 2015.

Father Christiansen said he and the St. Pius pastoral council discerned the Holy Spirit was leading them “to do more for the poor, needy and vulnerable within southern Snohomish County.” The outreach center they envisioned would be called Mercy House “as a fruit of this Year of Mercy in order to be of a wider service to the community,” he added.

When Father Christiansen learned that then-Archbishop J. Peter Sartain desired the creation of partnerships between CCS and individual parishes, the pastor approached CCS about Mercy House. “They loved the idea,” he said.

Father Cal Christiansen, pastor of St. Pius X Parish, blesses a family receiving help from Mercy House. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Mary Wahl, a regional network builder for CCS’ Catholic Collaborative for Poor Families and Communities, has been with Mercy House since the beginning, Father Christiansen said.

“I call her the motor in the car,” he said.

Under the collaborative — which brings together CCS, parishes and other Catholic organizations in the archdiocese — the parish and Wahl work as a team. St. Pius X and its volunteers do the ministry work, while Wahl serves as an advisor, bringing to the table years of experience in the nonprofit sector, skills in facilitating meetings and writing grants, and connections in the community.

Those connections were key when Father Christiansen and his parish team decided to expand outreach immediately in the wake of COVID-19.

Wahl contacted the Community Foundation of Snohomish County, detailing the work of Mercy House. Shortly afterward, the foundation awarded Mercy House a $25,000 grant for immediate help to people in south Snohomish County, followed by another grant of $12,500.

“It gave Mercy House an opportunity to show what they can do … what a blend of a nonprofit and a parish can do together,” Wahl said. “It takes the talents from the nonprofit, blended with the lead of the pastor and the volunteers of their programs.”

Open to the Spirit’s direction

Now that Mercy House “is kind of up and running,” Father Christiansen said, the challenge is to continue the momentum to keep it going. The economic changes wrought by COVID-19 mean grants for building projects like Mercy House probably “won’t be available for some time,” Father Christiansen said.

So the parish is shifting gears, looking at lower-cost options such as prefabricated or portable office structures that will allow the ministries of Mercy House to move under one roof — and serve more people in need — sooner.

“He doesn’t want to skip a beat,” Wahl said. Father Christiansen “has always said he has been driven by what he is being drawn to by prayer,” she added.

The initial vision is for Prepares/Respect Life and St. Vincent de Paul to share the space of Mercy House, along with a navigator — an on-site staff member who would take requests for assistance. The navigator would connect people with the help they need, whether it’s SVdP, Prepares, food banks, rapid housing, recovery services, employment resources or more intensive case management, Wahl explained.

“We have kind of a general plan,” Father Christiansen said, “but we’re keeping it open to what the Holy Spirit would bring our way.”

When Mercy House opens, it will provide a centralized place for the parish Prepares program to store and distribute diapers, clothing and items like strollers and bassinets for families in need, Ortiz Abraham said. Group members will continue hosting in-person baby showers and providing companionship for pregnant women and mothers with young children, but they also envision offering classes on topics such as parenting, natural family planning and breastfeeding, she said.

For St. Vincent de Paul, the building will provide an office where members can keep track of client requests and storage space for food and potentially household furnishings that clients may need, said Bridget Rosen, president of the parish’s SVdP conference.

Mercy House, she said, will be a symbol of what St. Pius parishioners can do to help others. “It’s a sign we’re not just praying, we’re doing the action part, too.”

The success of Mercy House’s COVID-19 emergency response will be a good story to tell when applying for competitive grants to help fund the scaled-down building plan, Wahl said.

Father Christiansen’s leadership “makes a world of difference on this project,” she said. “It is the model of how to bring together the archdiocese, CCS, the parish. It’s how to bring all the Catholic partners together. Father Cal is so committed to that. That’s why this project is different.”

Father Christiansen’s hope is that more of his parishioners will get out of their pews, responding to serve others through the opportunities Mercy House will present right on their parish campus.

“Once something like this is built, the Spirit has a way of bringing in people,” he said.

Read the Spanish version of this story.

Northwest Catholic –  July/August 2020

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.
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Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.