New shelter to aid women with babies recovering from trauma

The 13 bedrooms of the O'Connell House are as tidy as can be.

The sheets on the beds are smooth and clean. The desks are uncluttered. The teddy bears in the cribs are untouched. The closets are empty. The bathrooms are pristine.

At the end of this month, the rooms will be occupied by women and their babies, including those who are pregnant, fleeing violence and abuse. The O'Connell House, the first Catholic home in Massachusetts for women and children, two and under, who are victims of trauma, opened in the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13. (Out of concern for the safety of its residents, we are not disclosing the exact location of O'Connell House.)

Over the last four years, Deb O'Hara-Rusckowski, a delegate for the United Nations representing the Order of Malta, has worked to turn the house from an idea into reality. O'Hara-Rusckowski said that the Archdiocese of Boston has supported her "every step of the way."

"I listen to survivors often and think to myself, 'It could happen to me.'" She told The Pilot. "I was lucky. Some people, it's unbelievable what circumstances they got caught up in through no fault of their own."

The house was the vision of its namesake, Oblate Father Terry O'Connell, who was O'Hara-Rusckowski's spiritual advisor when she was studying theology at Boston College. She said that Father O'Connell was "appalled" to learn that many women's shelters could not accept pregnant women. In order to change that, he showed her a building that had 15 bedrooms, each with large private baths.

"It's plenty of room to fit a crib or a twin bed, isn't it?" he told her.

She and her husband Steve purchased the building for $1.5 million. It cost an additional $1 million to furnish the building. All of the funds came from private donations. Individuals and companies throughout the Merrimack Valley have also donated clothes, toiletries, diapers, baby toys, blankets, and other necessities.

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley cut the ribbon in the O'Connell House chapel.

"I just want to express my joy and gratitude," he told volunteers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Most people are completely oblivious to the horrors that take place all over the world, but particularly here in our own country and in our own community."

He spoke of his own experience visiting the other safe houses for trauma victims that exist in the archdiocese.

"For me, that was a real eye-opener," the cardinal said, "to begin to understand the human suffering, the injustice that people have to endure."

Cardinal O'Malley added that the O'Connell House will "raise people's consciousness, and hopefully inspire people to work for a more just society and a society that cares for its most vulnerable."

Every bedroom in the four-story building has a full bed, a bedside table, a desk, a chair, a dresser, and a crib, if necessary. The rooms each contain a statue of a female saint to inspire the women, though the house will be home to women of all faiths.

One of the 15 bedrooms was turned into a counseling room for therapist visits, while another will be used to house four religious sisters who will care for the women 24/7.

The house also contains a commercial kitchen, a dining room, a TV room, a laundry room, a gym, and an outdoor terrace. The terrace is surrounded by a metal fence for the women's protection. The women will receive psychotherapy and, if necessary, addiction treatment from local hospitals.

Women and their children can live at the O'Connell House for up to two years, but it is anticipated a typical stay will last 18 months. The women will learn workforce, personal finance, and life skills, as this is the first time that many of them will be living independently.

"Most of them," O'Hara-Rusckowski said, "depending on the age they started their trauma, they may not even know how to choose what they want for breakfast, because they never got to make that choice."

After their stay in the O'Connell House is over, the women will go to transitional housing to further prepare them for living on their own.

As he delivered a blessing in the chapel, Merrimack Regional Bishop Robert F. Hennessey noted that in the Book of Blessings, there is no blessing for a shelter like the O'Connell House.

"Our ritual book hasn't kept up with it," he said, "but our Church has kept up with it."

Father O'Connell, who died in 2021, did not live to see his dream be realized. His brother Pat O'Connell, who came up from Florida to attend the opening ceremony, did.

"He really had this vision," Pat O'Connell said of his brother, "but it's just a vision unless people like Deb, the Order of Malta, all of the volunteers . . . As a Catholic, as an O'Connell, as a person, thank you so much for what you have done."