Habitat for Humanity Mission of St. Francis Xavier

The Habitat mission of St. Francis was started a quarter of a century ago as a Catholic connection between the sisters of St. Joseph working both in LaGrange Park, IL and in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The parish of St. Elizabeth in Clarksdale needed sisters from other areas to educate their students. Mercy nuns from St. Louis, and representatives from our local order of sisters began teaching students at St. Elizabeth’s. Nearly 40 % of the Clarksdale population lives below the poverty line and the sisters identified that most of the town had insufficient housing—a problem being addressed by Clarksdale Area Habitat for Humanity since the mid-1980s. And so the mission began—for the past 24 consecutive years, St. Francis volunteers have made the long 12-hour trek south to participate in this important work.

In a desire to provide an interrogational mission experience for St. Francis families (and because freed-from-school teens were available in the summer, up to four separate groups of about 20 volunteers each have travelled to build homes in the hot summer sun of the Mississippi Delta during June and July. Initially, the “two Bills”—Bill Shell and Bill Stauffer—were the pioneers of this mission project. Bill Shell’s carpentry skills were instantly applicable to house building and his teacher-wife, Trish, brought school texts and coloring books for the children of Clarksdale to use. Local children were quickly drawn to the Habitat dorm to use books and do crafts like beading with the volunteer teens. Janet Stauffer began organizing a school supply drive from the neighborhood and encouraged local LaGrange neighbors to purchase backpacks, pens, and pencils which she would then deliver personally each year, driving back to Clarksdale before school started. Local leaders in Clarksdale started requesting clothing for children and once again collections were obtained and delivered.

Through the 20+ years that St. Francis has been building homes in Clarksdale, St. Francis volunteers have swung hammers side by side with the residents and this has greatly enriched an appreciation for the work we do as we see the happy smiles of anticipation on the future homeowner’s faces. Each of the four weeks of the summer projects will continue homebuilding work done ahead of them. This can be pouring a home’s foundation, building exterior frames and raising them, installing roofing, dry walling, painting, or installing closet shelves or hardware. Raising a wall with multiple sets of hands is a big thrill for a volunteer. The less glamorous tasks like taping drywall or painting are some of the practical skills that are learned by volunteers that can be used in their future lives. Volunteers stay in an air conditioned, simple, two-bunkroom dorm that has 10 sets of bunk beds in both the men’s and women’s rooms as well as a kitchen and eating room. Here is where prayers are prayed, meals are shared and daily work assignments are doled out by the leaders to the willing volunteers. Tools are selected from the tool room, large jugs of water are dragged out, and everyone drives out to the work site. Because parents and high school and college students travel and work together, most volunteers will tell you that the strong bonds between parents and sons and daughters are priceless. And it’s not just the volunteers swinging the hammers who’ve helped. None of the work would be possible without the generosity of St. Francis parishioners who donate their treasure via second collections and other fund-raisers. Others have donated items for the school children of the local Catholic parish, Immaculate Conception –things like backpacks, school supplies, books, toys and even car seats. And every year the people of St. Francis send along their prayers, for the well-being of the people of Clarksdale, and for the safe journey of the volunteers.

But it’s not all work and no play, for the Mississippi Delta area offers rich cultural and entertainment opportunities. It is the birthplace of the Blues, as it ha sbrought us the likes of Muddy Waters, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke, among others, and volunteers can find good local blues music any night of the week in local juke joints and at the Ground Zero restaurant, co-owned by Morgan Freeman. Many groups make a 30-minute drive to swim at “the beach,” a sandbar along the cool water of the Mississippi River. The local chapter of the Knights of Columbus and the former mayor of Clarksdale have made available their refreshing, in-ground swimming pools for us to use. The St. Elizabeth youth group opens up their gym and organizes games between their youth and ours. The new homeowners throw a potluck for volunteers at the end of the week consisting of yummy southern homemade dishes. At night, volunteers play cards and board games in the dorm kitchen, creating and fostering long term friendship bonds in the process. Adults can sit and chat on the screen porch which was designed by volunteer Jay Olsen who is an architect and who organized a screen porch build. One volunteer often serves as the cook for the week shopping for food and preparing meals. Sister Dorothy, S.S.J. was one of the original Habitat cooks.

Several side projects have developed out of the Habitat trips. Janet Stauffer, an experienced gardener, identified that home owners could use trees on their new property to offer some shade. She began the “Mary’s trees” mission and obtained support from the LaGrange Garden club to get small starter trees planted on Habitat house property. Spring Initiative in Clarksdale provides recreational and educational intervention to children in the area, and our Habitat volunteers have been able to go help with things like swim lessons or preschool classes during their time in Clarksdale. A local care station has utilized Habitat volunteers during times when we had slow times to help prepare and serve food in their soup kitchen. Some volunteers have travelled the short distance to the town of Sumner to see the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Closer to Clarksdale, the museum of Rock and Roll and Blues history can be seen and a trip to the Hobson plantation offers a view of old cotton gins and sharecropper’s home (though now outfitted with all the modern conveniences). These trips offer a chance to learn about the history of the agricultural roots of the area and how the absence of agricultural work has led to more poverty. Seeing first-hand the effects of the lack of employment, the prevalence of racism, the paucity of real educational opportunities, and other struggles local families face make this a genuine immersion experience, beyond helping provide basic shelter for human beings.

Anyone who has gone on one of these Habitat trips will tell you that they return home with the good feeling of a job well done and the joys of making new friendships. Muscles might be sore from hard work and there will be a renewed appreciation to be back home sleeping in a real bed and using a bigger shower. But the satisfaction of having helped provide a basic need of shelter to our less fortunate people is something that, as they say on the Mastercard commercials is “priceless.” In addition, the strengthening of strong bonds built between friends, and between parents and their sons and daughters has been just as rewarding. So do Habitat! It will do your heart (and all the rest of you) some good!

Chris O’Hea, long-time St. Francis volunteer and Clarksdale Area Habitat for Humanity board member