Catholic Worker House to open in city

Joe Dougherty works on renovations at Corpus Christi House, the Catholic Worker House at 41 W. Vine St. (Blaine T. Shahan/Sunday News)

Seventy-seven years after the Catholic Worker Movement began in the midst of the Great Depression, the first Catholic Worker House in Lancaster County will soon open its doors.

The brick row house at 41 W. Vine St., known as Corpus Christi House, is undergoing renovations and expects to receive its first guests by fall. An open house will be held there next weekend.

Joe Dougherty, board president of the Catholic Worker organization in Lancaster, said the local project has been in the works for a while and was able to move forward when the building became available.

The three-story residence, dating from 1840, was purchased in August from St. Mary's Catholic Church, located across the street.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 in New York City. There are more than 185 Catholic Worker communities worldwide, mostly in the U.S. They provide shelter, food, clothing and spiritual support to residents, who are known as guests, Dougherty said. The houses are staffed by unpaid volunteers.

According to the website, there are nine other Catholic Worker Houses in Pennsylvania; the nearest is in Harrisburg.

Corpus Christi House will be open 12:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, and 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 6.

Dougherty said that weekend was chosen to coincide with the Feast of Corpus Christi, or the Feast of the Body of Christ. He said the 8:30 a.m. Mass that Sunday at St. Mary's will honor the Catholic Worker volunteers.

The Rev. Leo Goodman, pastor of St. Mary's, has been very supportive of Corpus Christi House, said Dougherty, who's a member of the church.

Goodman said the row house was previously used as a residence for families in transition and individuals trying to become established in the community. St. Mary's still supports other ministries that do that, he said.

The church is delighted to have Corpus Christi House as a neighbor, Goodman said. This is "Christ's ministry in the heart of the city," he said.

More than 100 volunteers from 18 Catholic parishes in Lancaster County are involved in the project, Dougherty said.

"It's been an interesting journey," he said, "and we're only beginning."

Catholic Worker volunteers in Lancaster County also conduct winter clothing drives; serve free meals at St. Mary's, including at Easter; and staff the Lancaster County Council of Churches' overflow emergency shelter.

Corpus Christi House "is intended to be for the social justice needs of the deanery of Lancaster," Dougherty said.

"Corporal works of mercy" are the foundation, he said, citing these verses from Matthew 25:

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome."

According to a pamphlet from the local Catholic Worker branch, "The Corpus Christi House of Lancaster will be a safe haven, offering warmth and healing as well as a sense of community and belonging for those whom society has left behind."

To prepare for this, Dougherty, a Manheim Township retiree who works as a school bus driver, spent time volunteering in a Catholic Worker House in New York City, along with Rev. Goodman.

What he liked most, Dougherty said, was that "you couldn't tell the staff from the guests. What it really showed me was a sense of solidarity and community."

Goodman also said he was inspired by the experience.

Corpus Christi House will have two bedrooms and a bath on the first floor and three bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. The main kitchen is on the first floor, with a kitchenette upstairs.

There's space for a sixth bedroom on the third floor, Dougherty said, but city codes require a fire escape to be added.

Right now, funds aren't available to pay for that, he said.

Much of the renovation work is being done by Catholic Worker volunteers, Dougherty said, although some jobs require a contractor, such as the installation of a new plumbing system.

The house also has a backyard that volunteers want to turn into a prayer/meditation garden, he said.

Dougherty said the home will start out with six to eight guests; a house manager will always be on the premises.

Goodman said some of the Catholic Worker volunteers themselves "may be called to live radical lives of poverty."

The decision on what guests move in will be made through a "discernment process," Dougherty said. A number of the volunteers have ties to the social service field, he said.

"There's no charge to anybody who lives there," Dougherty said.

Guests are expected to stay for months or even years, he said. Corpus Christi House isn't a rehab center, Dougherty said.

The goal is to create a family atmosphere - something that may be a new experience for some of the guests, he said.

"This is a home," Dougherty said, "not a shelter."

Paula Wolf is a staff writer for the Sunday News. She can be reached by e-mail at