Thanks to lead gifts (and a little elbow grease) from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Catholic Financial Life and the Family of Four Parishes on Milwaukee’s East Side, the Sr. Thea Bowman Milwaukee Catholic House will soon be move-in ready.
The house, located in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, is one of four “faith-build” houses Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity began construction on in 2022, in partnership with local communities of faith.
The collaborative effort raised $90,000 in financial support for the Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic House, in addition to providing volunteer support at the build site.
The project is not only an opportunity to help a local family become homeowners, it is a chance for the Catholic Church to shine a light on the issue of housing, said Rob Shelledy, Archdiocesan Director for Dignity for the Human Person and Coordinator of the Social Justice Ministry.
“As Catholics, we believe that decent, safe and affordable housing is a human right,” said Shelledy.
Ground broke on the Sr. Thea Bowman House in August, and the build has been buoyed by additional donations from Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, including St. Francis of Assisi, Good Shepherd, Divine Mercy, St. James and St. Leonard parishes.
Sr. Thea Bowman, F. S. P. A., was a Black Catholic teacher, musician, liturgist and scholar who made major contributions to the Church’s ministry toward African Americans. Under consideration for sainthood, Sr. Bowman earned a bachelor’s degree from Viterbo University in La Crosse and later taught there.
The project built upon existing relationships that existed between Catholic communities in Milwaukee and Habitat for Humanity, said Shelledy.
This is just the most recent Habitat home that Catholic Financial Life has sponsored, having previously supported the Pope Francis House in 2016.
“We have already committed to being a financial and build supporter of another Habitat home in 2023,” Catholic Financial Life President John Borgen said. “Our sponsorship of this project not only supports our mission but also offers us an opportunity to partner with other Catholic organizations in Milwaukee and help revitalize neighborhoods in our community.”
In addition to a monetary donation, Catholic Financial Life volunteered for four of the build days, providing 29 associates and 137 hours. Associates, members of the board of directors and Catholic Financial Life chapter leaders also signed studs that were incorporated into the home.
Tim Logman, who attends St. Hedwig Parish, coordinates the Habitat for Humanity ministry at the Family of Four Parishes and has been volunteering with the non-profit for years.
“We’re out there about every month to six weeks, rotating through all the other volunteer groups,” he said.
As he logged hours on the build site, Logman thought about the family that would one day occupy the house — and the financial and social stability the move could afford them.
“They talk about the fact that when you have a stable house, you own your home and you know you’re going to stay there, kids graduate from high school at a much greater rate because they go to the same school day after day, year after year,” he said. “That always has an impact on me.”
The statistics offered by Habitat for Humanity are as devastating as they are compelling: Americans who own their own home have an average net wealth that is 400 percent higher than renters of similar demographic and earnings.
“One out of three renters in Milwaukee are spending more than half their income on housing,” said Kristi Sebald, Faith Relations Manager for Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity. “Statistically, three out of four white families in Milwaukee own their home, and three out of four Black and Latino families do not.”
Families who spend more than half their income to cover their housing costs are also two times as likely to lack access to a car, according to Habitat. They are 28 percent more likely to go without health insurance and 23 percent more likely to experience difficulty purchasing food.
Housing prices in the metro Milwaukee area have risen more than 72 percent in the last 20 years, putting home ownership — increasingly shown to be the fulcrum of financial stability — out of reach for so many.
For parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Milwaukee, that reality hits close to home, said Dean Roder, who coordinates the parish’s Habitat for Humanity volunteer group.
“Some people pray better with their hands and feet than they do with words,” Roder said. “The impact of urban planning decisions and deprioritization of traditionally African American neighborhoods … the awareness of the parish of that impact on that particular community made it even more appealing to people to help resolve some of that problem through providing affordable quality housing.”
He estimates that in the past three years, St. Francis parishioners have logged more than 600 hours on local build sites.
“Being able to be a part of the solution to that is a very cool thing,” he said.
The Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic House is expected to be completed by the end of April, when Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki will bless the site and meet homeowner Danielle Pittman.
A certified nursing assistant who works at St. John’s on the Lake, Pittman is a mother of four and grandmother of two. “That’s my heart and joy. That’s my love,” she said of her grandkids. This house, she said, will change their lives, too. “I stay in a project-based house now and I don’t have a swing set for them. I want to start a garden. I’m older now. I want to have my grandchildren over (for) family dinners.”
The rent at Pittman’s current home, which she shares with her 18-year-old daughter, can be upwards of $1,000 per month.
Lack of access to safe and affordable housing is “a long-standing problem” within all 10 counties of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said Shelledy.
“That is why it is so important for the Church to continue its support for the various efforts throughout the archdiocese, such as the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter in Fond du Lac, Capuchin Apartments in Milwaukee, HOPES Center of Racine, and many others, in addition to working with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.
Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity is not the only Habitat affiliate within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee — there are also affiliates doing work in each of the other nine counties in the archdiocese.
“Every affiliate uniquely brings together people and resources to address the affordable housing crisis in their community,” said Sebald. “We would encourage any parish to reach out to their local affiliate to learn more about how they can participate.”
To find and support an affiliate near you, visit habitat.org/volunteer/near-you/find-your-local-habitat.