During the final week of Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity’s 30th build season earlier this year, dozens of volunteers began framing work on five homes in the Washington Park neighborhood. One of these houses had a special resonance with the Catholic community – as well as a crew of mostly Catholic volunteers.
The “Pope Francis” house on North 39th Street is being built in honor of the pontiff, and is made possible by a large financial endowment from an anonymous, out-of-state donor who says he was inspired by Pope Francis’ devotion to the poor.
Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity is one of three chapters nationwide to receive funding from the donor’s gift. Habitat organizers say they have no knowledge of the donor’s identity and are not aware of how or why he chose these specific cities to benefit from the endowment.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, who was present to bless the house site as framing work began in mid-September, called Pope Francis “one of the great symbols in the world today, especially for reaching out to the poor and needy.”
“The wonderful thing is that generosity is contagious,” he said during his address. “An anonymous donor offered, from their heart, something they wished to do for the good of others, and everybody else reaches out and jumps on that and we suddenly have generosity multiplied in many different ways.”
The Pope Francis house build included volunteers from 12 Catholic parishes, three Catholic high schools and the Marquette University Habitat chapter.
“That’s no surprise to me because some of our longest-serving Habitat volunteers who come out on a weekly basis are from the Catholic community … they’re motivated, really, by their faith,” said Brian Sonderman, executive director of Milwaukee Habitat, who added that he hopes at least one more Pope Francis house will be built next year through the support of Catholic parishes and individuals.
“The hope is to energize the Catholic community here to really honor the legacy, the work of Pope Francis and his teachings, and hopefully be a seed for future Pope Francis homes here in Milwaukee.”
Archbishop Listecki said Pope Francis’ social justice philosophy has resonated with Catholics worldwide because “he has a willingness to demonstrate his love for the poor by really living it – by going out among the poor of the city, by his invitation, by his inclusion of those people who are in need. That immediately strikes a chord with most of our people.”
“He’s a pastor, and I think that’s really key,” the archbishop said in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “I think Cardinal Dolan said it well when he said John Paul II was the pope of the spirit, Benedict was the pope of the head, and this guy’s the pope of the heart…. I think the first way we meet Jesus is when we meet someone responding … to things we need.”
Erskine Jude, 33, future owner of the Pope Francis home, hopes the house will be a place of healing and peace for his family. His brother was murdered two years ago, and Jude has become the guardian of his two nephews, ages 6 and 8. The family will live there with Jude’s mother, who is disabled.
Jude said he was living out of state until his brother’s murder. He moved back home to assume responsibility for his nephews.
“I don’t have no kids, so I’m stepping up to be a father figure in their life,” he said, adding that the house will mean “pretty much everything” to his family. “It’s going to be the foundation of … my own family.”
He also hopes the house will provide some stability for his nephews.
“Having a home is a lot of responsibility for me and I’m just trying to translate the responsibility to them so they’ll know how to take care of a home,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay strong for everybody – that’s pretty much my role right now.”
Jude is a member of the National Guard and also works full-time at Cargill. He currently lives with his nephews and mother in a one-bedroom corner apartment in Washington Park.
The house is slated to be ready for occupancy in June.
“So when June comes around, we’re going to be happy,” he said. “I can’t wait to see it come up, to see how it’s going to come together. It’s a blessing come true, pretty much.”
Karen van Hoof, Milwaukee Habitat donor relations manager, explained every new homeowner is required by Habitat for Humanity to put in a certain about of “sweat equity” in exchange for a down payment; this can be in the form of volunteer hours either on their own home build or on another site.
“As a single homeowner, Erskine has to put in around 300 hours, and he’s already finished that,” she said. “He’s very eager. He just says, ‘I want to move in’ – he’s so looking forward to it.”
The Pope Francis house is about 1,600 square feet, includes three bedrooms and is compatible with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations to accommodate Jude’s mother. Habitat for Humanity homeowners qualify for a 0 percent mortgage, which works out to about $450 to $650 a month.
Archbishop Listecki hopes more Catholics will be inspired, as the anonymous donor was, by Pope Francis’ social justice teachings.
“Every one of our parishes has programs that reach out. We don’t have to go any further than the church that’s right in our area, and just ask, ‘What are you doing? Do you have a food pantry? Do you outreach to the poor?’” he said. “Just say, ‘I’m ready.’ And I think that’s what Pope Francis does. Imagine everybody saying, ‘I could do something’; imagine what we could accomplish.”