Sancta Maria House provides ‘peace and rest’ for 35 years

BOSTON -- “Sancta Maria is a gentle place in a hard, hard world,” wrote one guest of Massachusetts’ first overnight shelter for women in a thank you note.

Another note left at the house read, “I come here exhausted and find peace and rest.”

“They’re all very, very grateful for this place,” Mary McHale, a founding member of Sancta Maria, said of the guests. “They all love to come here because it’s so small. They call it their vacation house.”

Sancta Maria House, celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, was founded by the Legion of Mary, an international Catholic lay apostolate, in 1972. The 10-bed shelter was opened by Cardinal Humberto Medeiros who blessed each room. It has always been run entirely by volunteers.

The shelter is located in Boston’s South End, near the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where a Mass in honor of the anniversary will be celebrated on Sept. 8 at 11 a.m. A reception and a tour of the house will follow.

Guests can stay at the shelter for up to seven nights each month from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. Some stay just one night, others longer. They come from different backgrounds and do not have a place to stay for different reasons. Some have become homeless through illness, employer downsizing, family problems or the lack of affordable housing.

Some guests work in the city but are not able to afford rent in Boston. Others are professionals who lost their jobs and could not pay their rent, said McHale, the shelter’s housemother for the past 18 years.

Over the past 35 years the service provided by the house has become more important and continues to grow in importance every day, she added.

“More women are becoming homeless. Right now there’s women sleeping every day of the week outdoors because the shelters are just so filled to capacity they can’t let them in,” she said.

McHale said that many of the women who were in need of a place to stay in the past have since acquired permanent housing and come back to visit the shelter.

“Ten of the women who have come here homeless, when they got their own apartments came back as overnight volunteers,” she said. “The rest keep in touch with us for years and come by with treats for the other guests -- cookies and coffee, things like that that they know they enjoyed here.”

Sancta Maria has 10 beds for guests and two for the 25 volunteers who rotate overnight shifts. Many of the volunteers work full-time jobs and leave the shelter in the morning to go to work. Volunteers also clean the house, welcome and talk to guests as well as provide them with snacks. They also hand out Bibles, medals and prayer cards as requested.

Weekly volunteer Liz Colebourn said that serving at the house has also helped her to find peace.

“I first came to Sancta Maria house with some trepidation, but the moment I entered here I found such peace. It has been so important in my life,” she said.

There were once seven Sancta Maria houses operating in the United States and Canada, but the one in Boston is the last remaining house run by the Legion of Mary in North America.

The house in Boston, built in the 1880s, is much older than the ministry there. Unfortunately, it is also in need of structural repairs, McHale said.

Her assistant housemother, Sheena Pappalardo, said, “We have to do the repairs to keep open. Costs will be in excess of $50,000. This represents a major change for our small board and volunteer group. We pray a lot.”