She worked on the staff of Catholic Youth Expeditions (CYE), a Catholic apostolate for high school students and young adults.
For a year, she evangelized among the materially poor at a long-term homeless shelter in the Bronx. Then, she spent a year as a youth ministry intern at Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac.
Each experience was fulfilling for Samantha Vosters, 27, the youngest of four girls in what she described as a beautiful family, home and education in Freedom, a town of under 6,000 in the Green Bay Diocese.
But two years ago, she found herself working at a coffee shop and as a nanny, wondering, “What am I doing with my life?”
Vosters, a 2010 graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, was drawn to working with the materially poor who had physical and spiritual neediness, and while she knew what she was doing wasn’t “it,” she didn’t know what “it” was.
While enjoying a Guinness and Irish music at County Clare in Milwaukee with a friend, Shannon Seegers, 26, whom she met through CYE, they came up with an idea – to live in a house to which they could invite people, similar to social activist Dorothy Day’s hospitality houses about which they had read.
“When I would read Dorothy Day’s diaries, it was just like she just made such an intense gift of herself through these houses of hospitality and … Shannon was like, ‘Hey, so do you want to have a house where we can just invite people in?’” Vosters said of Seegers, the second oldest of six who had also been searching for answers in her life.
Seegers had moved back home with her parents and worked as an autism behavioral therapist in Oconomowoc, after serving a year and a half on the staff of CYE and traveling.
Door opens at Mission House
That conversation led to the start of the Riverwest Food Pantry Mission House for women, which opened this month. It’s a two-story house in the heart of the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods, where up to six young adult women will live in community for a nine-month commitment among the people they serve at the food pantry, where they’ll be expected to serve a minimum of 10 hours a week.
To learn more about the Mission House for women, or for an application,
The goal, according to an informational sheet, “is to be humble servants, whose experience of solidarity with the poor empowers us to be active advocates for justice. Through this work, we walk with people in Christian discipleship, and revitalize the urban church. This is more than an internship – this is a mission and a lifestyle! All interns must be emotionally, physically, and spiritually willing to serve God and the community.”
Four women are living at the house – Vosters and Seegers were renting the top level, and Riverwest Food Pantry rented the lower level when college students moved out to create rooms for women interested in applying.
Some of the women have discerned religious life – Vosters professed private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at St. Casimir last November, meaning she’s not a sister, but a laywoman who remains in the world, single-heartedly for the Lord – but that’s not a requirement of the Mission House.
A few others have discerned religious life and decided it’s not for them.
The food pantry provides the living space at the Mission House, but the women have jobs to cover the cost of gas, electricity, water, groceries and Internet.
Intentional community serves marginalized
They have to desire to live the Gospel in an intentional community that offers direct service to the marginalized, desire to encounter Christ through prayer and study in the tradition of the Catholic Church, invest in community-based development practices (working with neighbors to feed the hungry, improve lives and cultivate community well-being), and grow in simple, sustainable living practices.
Vosters, who works full time at the Riverwest Food Pantry, said they want the Mission House to be a space where young women can grow in community as young adults while being challenged and growing in their personal prayer and prayer of the church so they can discern their life mission.
“If somebody studied business and wanted to live in the Mission House, it would be so valuable to take that experience, I think, living in solidarity with those who are in need and having that solid prayer life in the Catholic tradition to then take that to be like, how does this now affect my work in the business world? How am I thinking about the poor in my work, in my transactions? How does this affect other people? …” she said. “I just really hope this is a seed bed for other people to grow in their understanding of the Lord and the poor and the Catholic social tradition and the church’s rich tradition of their spiritual life.”
Live, serve in neighborhood
Vosters and Seegers started to volunteer at the pantry after meeting with Vincent Noth, executive director of the food pantry, and connecting with his heart for the community and his love for Jesus and the poor.
They decided to eventually live in the neighborhood they were serving, so they were not just outsiders performing good works at the pantry and then leaving, and rooted themselves in a local church – St. Hedwig at the time (now the house attends Our Lady of Divine Providence) – where they attended Mass weekly.
They started hosting brunches for whoever was at Mass on Sundays, too.
“I think a huge part of building that community was just saying, “Hey, you can come over to our house. We don’t have anything planned, and we maybe have some eggs, but if you could, bring whatever’s in your fridge,’ … and there always was plenty of food to feed the people,” Seegers said.
Relationships fed the mission
Vosters said a lot of people in the community started making St. Hedwig their parish, and began to invest in the food pantry.
“The building of the church community fed into the pantry, which was just a kind of a cool thing to see and it wasn’t, no one said, ‘Oh, you need to come and do this,’ but … people started showing up on Saturday mornings, partially because they probably wanted to serve and be there, but partially also because it was like, ‘Oh, I know that’s where my friends are going to be,’ so then, again, it was just the relationship, I think, fed the mission,” Seegers said.
But the overall idea to start the Mission House originated from the example of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, as well as their experiences of living in community, different from living with roommates, Vosters said.
“It’s like there’s an intentional mission that you’re about and maybe more intentional prayer that you’re trying to kind of do together,” said Vosters, explaining she learned a lot about herself and grew in holiness when she lived with four lay women in the Bronx, where they had intentional prayer, dinners together and each had an apostolate as part of the missionary group.
As they talked about the idea of a Mission House, they learned young women were interested in living simply in community and serving at the food pantry, so they went for it, hoping to challenge young women to grow and discern where the Lord is calling them, Vosters said.
One of the first women to move into the Mission House is California-native Elise Myers, 25, environmental educator at the Urban Ecology Center who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University in 2013 and her master’s in education from Marquette University this year. She met Vosters when she began volunteering at the pantry.
Convert to Catholicism grows in faith at home
Myers said she was interested in living in a community, but hadn’t come across the right opportunity – and then she heard about the Mission House.
“When I heard about the Mission House, and the prayer community, and the community of serving and continuing to serve at the food pantry, I was really excited about that opportunity and, of course, it was with some women that I’d already met through the food pantry and so I was even more excited for that opportunity to continue to work with them and to grow in my faith formation as well because I just entered the church at Easter,” said Myers, raised in a non-denominational Christian church.
She came into her faith in college, and even more when she moved to Milwaukee and met faith-filled, devoted Catholics, falling in love with the beauty of the church, Mass and sacraments.
Myers will create community meals using food raised in their community gardens or food from Feeding America, give lessons to people on how to cook with fresh produce and on food literacy, and create a better labeling system so shoppers know what items are healthiest.
“I’m particularly excited about the food literacy and also, along with that, with helping people to make healthier food choices, also helping people to make more sustainable food choices,” she said.
Lifestyle is main attraction
The biggest change for Myers, an only child, is living in an intentional community with scheduled obligatory events and prayer times. But she’s excited and said the experience will force her to grow.
Minnesota-native Anna Carter, 27, a theology teacher at St. Thomas More High School for four years, is also living at the Mission House.
She met Vosters and Seegers through the Catholic young adult community in Milwaukee, and was attracted to their lifestyle.
“A lot of my experience in ministry has been more evangelization and discipleship, and just kind of recognizing a lack, on my own part, of just the whole Catholic Social Teaching element, that I wasn’t really doing that as much as was being put on my heart, so when I ended up moving to the east side a year ago, I immediately joined Our Lady of Divine Providence – St. Casimir site, getting to know that community,” she said, noting that involved Noth and his wife. Carter loved what she found there, appreciated the diversity in the parish and felt the desire to revitalize the urban church, something she felt has been forgotten.
After hearing the idea of the Mission House, Carter typed up some ideas about what she thought it could look like – and then she realized she felt drawn to live there as well.
“I just felt like the more and more I was in the community, there was just kind of like a magnet being drawn to a lodestone, and just really feeling like this is where I was supposed to be, working at the pantry and living at the house,” she said, explaining she had volunteered at the pantry a few times.
She also wanted to live at the house and connect with people on the fringes of community life through informal events, creating a place of encounter and welcome, for her own spiritual professional development.
“Just recognizing this is something that I need. I need to be living these Corporal Works of Mercy, and just the desire to grow in corporal works of mercy, living out actively Catholic Social Teaching,” she said. “I love seeing Jesus in the Eucharist, and it’s like well, OK, I also need to be seeing him in the poor.”
Simple living leads to holiness
Carter, the oldest of three children, said she changed her schedule to part time at school in order to dedicate 10 to 15 hours a week at the pantry, where she will be responsible for volunteer formation.
Committing to live in the house and volunteer at the pantry meant she would be committing to getting up early for communal prayer, taking a pay cut and living a little more simply – and without a TV in the living room – with the hope that she gets holiness out of the experience.
“I think so often in just living the single life it’s very easy to be independent and self-centered because you really are just concerned about yourself,” she said. “You don’t have dependents, you don’t have somebody that you’re accountable to all the time. It’s easy to get kind of self-centered and so, I guess, through this year, desiring to grow more in kind of giving myself away as a gift, recognizing that my life is not my own, and that it’s an offering back to God through the way that I treat others and the way that I love those around me, and really just trying to integrate that reality into my decisions.”
A Mission House for men is also in the works, and will open as soon as there are enough interested young men.
Vosters said she hopes the Mission House helps young adults find their life mission.
“Maybe somebody will discern, ‘Oh wow, I want to give my life whole-heartedly to the Lord as (a) religious sister, so then maybe somebody could leave to do that. Maybe someone’s like, ‘This is great preparation for marriage, and great preparation for being a mom, and learning how to be in community with people’ … ” she said.
“Through communal life and prayer and calling each other to holiness, that’s how we’re going to be called to greater holiness in whatever way that looks for each particular person, because God has such a specific calling for each one of us, even just within people’s state in life vocation,” Vosters said. “There’s such a specific mission in that, so hopefully it will just be a little jumping point, diving board for that.”