Soothing aromas of peppermint, lavender and gingerbread and lemon verbena waft through the hallways of the Franciscan Peacemakers headquarters on a recent, early December morning.
The warm, comforting, inviting smells coming from the piles of handmade soap bars, waiting to be wrapped with the “Gifts for the Journey” labels, are a sharp contrast to the north side Milwaukee neighborhood’s tough, harsh ways.
Outside, poverty is evident with boarded up homes and littered roadways, but inside, Franciscan Peacemakers, located inside St. Martin de Porres Church, is an oasis, a safe haven from the streets.
While the sale of the soaps, bath teas and bath bombs is a business venture, intended to raise money for Franciscan Peacemakers and its mission, the bath products are symbolic of the work taking place in this north side church.
Originally a Capuchin ministry
Gifts for the Journey products
Franciscan Peacemakers also welcomes donations of gift cards and supplies for Clare Community, including soap, paper towels, toilet paper and laundry soap.
Franciscan Peacemakers, founded 18 years ago by two Capuchin Franciscan priests, Frs. Robert Wheelock and Michael Sullivan, is an outreach to women, men and children who engage in prostitution on the streets of Milwaukee. Currently headed by Deacon Steve Przedpelski, director, and Carmen Mojica, a certified social worker, the two drive around the surrounding neighborhoods where street prostitution is active. They not only try to meet people’s basic needs, offering food, first aid and personal care items, but perhaps more importantly, they listen to their stories, often tales of sexual abuse as children and feelings of being unloved and feeling hopeless.
Deacon Przedpelski, deacon at St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus, took over the ministry 12 years ago when the Capuchins left. Within a year, he hired Mojica and the two make daily rounds in their “office,” a white 2004 Ford Free Star van with 302,000 miles on it, printed with the name “Franciscan Peacemakers” boldly on the side. Mojica also coordinates a regular support group for the women.
Inspired by Nashville program
While they know they are making a difference in the lives of the women they meet, Deacon Przedpelski admitted he struggled with the feeling they could do more.
“We struggled a lot with what more can we offer. The things that exist aren’t working well,” he said, explaining about three years ago, he saw a program on public television about a ministry in Nashville, Tenn., Thistle Farms & Magdalene, started by an Episcopal priest, Rev. Becca Stevens.
Similar to Franciscan Peacemakers, Thistle Farms serves women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets. But unlike Franciscan Peacemakers, Thistle Farms’ Magdelene program is a two-year residential program for women who have survived lives on the streets.
In addition to housing, food and medical needs, the women enter a job training program at ThistleFarms where the women create natural bath and body products sold in more than 200 stores in Tennessee to raise funds for the programs.
Intrigued with what he saw of Thistle Farms, Deacon Przedpelski and Mojica traveled to Tennessee to see the program firsthand.
Although he was impressed with the program and its obvious successes, Deacon Przedpelski questioned whether it could be replicated in Milwaukee, since Rev. Stevens, married to a Grammy-winning songwriter, Marcus Hummon (who has written songs for Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Wynona, Sara Evans, Alabama, and the Rascal Flatts’ single, “Bless the Broken Road”) had deeper fundraising pockets to tap into with the Nashville country music community.
Suicide prompts action
“I was reluctant to venture into something like this because how would we build the type of capital to build this kind of program,” he admitted, but when one of Peacemakers’ former clients “who by all appearances was doing really well” committed suicide on Good Friday, 2012, Deacon Przedpelski, felt compelled to do more.
“Not from the standpoint that we could have prevented (the suicide) but the whole thing got me thinking, what we were offering wasn’t enough. What more could we do?” to offer life-transforming skills.
Clare Community to open next month
Gifts for the Journey, a bath products venture, was born in January and funds from the sales will help support Clare Community, a homelike environment that will house three women by mid-January, hopes Deacon Przedpelski.
Clare Community, located in the lower level of St. Martin de Porres, is still being rehabbed, primarily by volunteers, but it will feature a shared kitchen and living space for three women who enroll in its two-year program. Mojica, who will direct Clare Community, explained the program offers healing of the mind, spirit and body. The women who will live in community must commit to working on an education, must be employed and will complete levels such as novice and postulant prior to graduation.
The women will be employed through Gifts for the Journey, helping with the soap making process, but also selling the bath products at farmers markets and at parishes throughout the year.
Making soap a learning process
With no experience in the soap-making business, Mojica, a member of St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus, and St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee, and volunteers, experimented with their first batch of soap earlier this year. Admittedly that first batch “did not go so well,” said Mojica, but in the months that have followed, they’ve learned about scents, oils, the cold process with lye and now know what makes a good soap.
Curing the soap is a four- to six-week process, she noted, adding that making bath bombs and “fizzies” “took a while to get down.” Over the months, they’ve had fun experimenting with various scents, she said, and they’ve also learned that as fewer people take baths, they are looking into other products such as hand lotions and candles.
Deacon Przedpelski said, as with any new business, he expected to lose perhaps 40 percent during its first year, but it has far surpassed his expectations, and, he noted proudly, Gifts for the Journey will at the least break even this year, and in fact, might make a little money.
Former client an ‘anchor of hope’
In addition to selling the products online (giftsforthejourney.com) and regularly at farmers markets in Thiensville and Port Washington, they’ve embarked on the “Franciscan Peacemakers preaching tour,” visits to parishes by Deacon Przedpelski where he explains the mission and then they sell the products after Masses.
Michele Kasper, a client of Franciscan Peacemakers for nine years, accompanies him to many of the churches. Kasper, soon to coordinate production and inventory control for Gifts for the Journey, can be an anchor of hope for other women, said Mojica.
Like virtually all women involved in prostitution, Kasper, 37, was sexually abused as a child. She grew up in Oak Creek, she said, describing a dysfunctional childhood where she was often in unsafe situations having to fend for herself even as young as age 5. In spite of a learning disability, she graduated high school and attended Carroll College – now University – for three years before dropping out. She landed what she described as a good job as a program manager at an electronics company, but was laid off in 2003, she said.
Life on the streets
From there, her life spiraled out of control. She tried crack cocaine and before she knew it, blew through $60,000 of her 401K plan “and when that ran out, I turned to the streets,” she said. “It wasn’t my plan to smoke, but one time I tried it and all the pain went away,” she said of the lifestyle that became addictive.
She often encountered Mojica and Deacon Przedpelski on the streets, but rejected their offers of help.
“They kept after me, kept coming back and tried to get me sober,” she said, and finally about five years ago, on July 1, she called Deacon Przedpelski in desperation.
Even though he had plans with his wife, Deborah, to attend a concert at Summerfest that day, Kasper said he agreed to meet with her at McDonalds.
“His wife said I was more important than any concert,” said Kasper, describing how for the first time she felt cared for and loved.
Years of therapy have followed and Kasper said, with the help of Franciscan Peacemakers, she lives in her own apartment, with her dog, Francis, and for the first time is at peace in her life.
As she wrapped soaps recently, along with Mojica and volunteer, Joy Stadther, Kasper, calling Deacon Przedpelski and Mojica her family, said she made it through the challenges in her life with the support of Franciscan Peacemakers.
“I went through a lot of bad things there, but I made it through and kept coming here and they encouraged and supported me through everything,” she said.
Volunteer is an inspiration
Kasper noted she gains inspiration from people like Stadther, a volunteer and member of St. Richard Parish, Racine, enrolled in the lay ministry program at Cardinal Stritch University.
“Just seeing her volunteering is therapy for me,” said Kasper of Stadther, explaining, “Seeing what kind of person she is and the things she is doing with her life. I’ve never had really good people in my life and she is helping me to strive to have that.”
Stadther, who will serve as a mentor to women living in Clare Community, worked for a government agency in Washington, D.C., and explained in her work, she read and wrote many reports of horrific abuses.
“I could not do anything but write my reports and make sure people downtown know what was going on in the world, but I resolved when I retired and moved back to Wisconsin, I would try to do something for people on the margins of society in my little corner of the world.”
She learned of Franciscan Peacemakers about 18 months ago and volunteers a couple times a week, helping in the soap-making process, but also going on the streets to minister.
“Another wonderful benefit is I have met such good people who are involved with this like Steve, Carmen and Michele,” said Stadther, adding that as she goes on the streets and delivers lunches, she sees the challenges those who live in poverty face. “I often think to get out of this, they will have to be superhuman.”
After 17 years of working in this ministry, Deacon Przedpelski admitted the work can be depressing.
“Most of the people we work with will die as a result of the streets and people don’t like hearing that, but we call it a success when we have relationships with individuals,” he said, noting on an average week, they distribute 400 to 500 lunches – thanks to support from about 40 parishes – and make contact with 20 or 30 women. With the advent of Gifts for the Journey and the opening of Clare Community, Deacon Przedpelski has reason to be hopeful.
“I feel like today we’re in a position to make a bigger difference than we have,” he said, adding the business “is going way better than anyone anticipated.”
“Across the diocese, there are people from a wide range of the political spectrum who do this work, because of their belief in the Gospel,” he said, adding, like as Pope Francis teaches, they are motivated by following Jesus’ example, not by any political agenda.