When Wanda Jenkins utilized the Family Medical Leave Act to care for her mother suffering from dementia, she never expected to be homeless. A diligent worker, Jenkins worked in the cafeterias of two Milwaukee area college campuses for 10 years, and expected once she found permanent care for her mother she would return to her job.
“I took care of my mom as long as I could, but then I had to move her into a group home,” she explained. “When I tried to get my job back, I couldn’t because my position was no longer open. I had no money and no savings and that began three years of homelessness.”

Because the medical leave was considered voluntary, Jenkins was told she did not qualify for unemployment, so she went from shelter to shelter, often hungry and cold.

A little more than three years ago, she moved into the Salvation Army shelter. She found a community advocate who successfully appealed the unemployment denial and saved enough money to move into St. Catherine Residence, at 1032 Knapp St.

“I had given up on God for a while and stopped praying,” Jenkins admitted. “I was so broken and they worked with me until I was healed. Everything worked out and I was blessed to move into St. Catherine. I can’t imagine where I would be without this place.”

More than century of service by Mercy Sisters

Founded by the Sisters of Mercy 119 years ago, St. Catherine Residence, which also includes McAuley Apartments, 1018 Knapp St., provides safe, affordable housing to more than 200 women and families.

For Jenkins, who is disabled, having a home in St. Catherine Residence offers her security, an onsite nurse, guidance, new friends and the ability to finish her high school education.

“It means so much to me to be able to earn my GED and have a stable lifestyle,” she said. “Everyone here works as a team to keep residents safe and healthy; it is such a blessing.”

St. Catherine Residence provides housing for up to 157 women in suite-style apartments with shared baths and community kitchens. Women may rent short- or long-term and may stay as long as they wish.

The McAuley Apartments provide 46 studio and one- or two-bedroom apartments with an annual lease. Single residents and families live in a safe environment with affordable rent, underground parking, an exercise room and computer room.

The supportive housing is for any woman seeking a friendly, attractive environment to gain confidence, develop interpersonal skills, networking and knowledge. Residents are students, mothers, professionals, and blue-collar workers from all walks of life and all faiths, varying in age from 17 to 76 years of age.

Mercy Housing Lakefront takes over

In October, governance of the two apartment buildings was entrusted to the national affordable housing leader, Mercy Housing Lakefront (MHL), by the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community and the St. Catherine board of directors.

For more information on Mercy Housing Lakefront and St. Catherine Residence, visit: www.mercyhousinglakefront.org; http://stcatherineresidence.org.

Modeled after the original House of Mercy, founded by Mother Catherine McAuley, St. Catherine Residence continues to be co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy.

As a member of the Sisters of Mercy Spiritual and Social Outreach Sponsorship Council, Mercy Sr. Margaret Mary Knittel serves as the liaison from the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha to MHL St. Catherine Residence. The discussion regarding plans to change the governance began two years ago.

“The board began talking about new partners and as it began, some other sisters and I began talking about Mercy Housing Lakefront as an option,” said Sr. Margaret Mary. “They have 60,000 units in the country and they create affordable housing and have done so for the past 30 years. It was an existing organization that had the skill set to operate St. Catherine and McAuley residences.”

Has presence in Milwaukee area

MHL already had a significant presence in the Milwaukee area. Since 2006, it has owned and operated the Johnston Center Residences in Milwaukee, which provides housing for persons with special needs. Under the merger, MHL supports the mission of St. Catherine and operates as a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization. Approximately 20 full- and part-time staff members are employed through MHL.

According to Cindy Holler, president of MHL, it is important to deepen their roots in Milwaukee and to look at the needs of southeastern Wisconsin.

“We want to expand our services there,” she said. “The addition of St. Catherine Residence is part of our mission. Our investment in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee will continue to expand as we add services, partners, dollars and jobs to the city.”
Financially, the residences were not in a desperate state, but it was important to offer long-term financial stability as well as the possibility for the creation of additional low-income housing units.

Need for housing exists

“There is a great need for additional housing units as there is much poverty in southeastern Wisconsin,” Sr. Margaret Mary said, adding, “I had no idea the immense need there is in Milwaukee alone.”

Providing the housing for the needy is a charism of the Sisters of Mercy who take a fourth vow, in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience. They promise to take care of the poor, sick and uneducated.

“The needs of these people are very important to our community,” she said. “I think the change in governance worked out very well and was an educational process for us all.”

Family ties to Mercy Sisters

As the past president of the St. Catherine resident board and member of the MHL board, John Neuberger has served St. Catherine Residence for more than six years. He also serves on the Southeastern Wisconsin advisory board for MHL.

In his role as director of client partnerships for Quad/Graphics, Neuberger cultivates relationships with health care partners that serve Quad/Graphics’ 20,000 employees throughout the United States.

Serving others has always been part of his life, but serving on the board for St. Catherine Residence is special to him.

“My wife’s aunt was a Sister of Mercy and she did a lot of work for Mercy High School,” said Neuberger. “I got to know her 40 years ago when we were first married and then I found out that my father-in-law was the president of the St. Catherine’s board of directors and was involved in that decades before because of his sister.”

With a sister-in-law who resides at McAuley Apartments, Neuberger is pleased with the surroundings, the quality of the apartments and the residents.

“It is a very wonderful place and I am very happy to have gotten to know women who live there,” he said. “I’m so impressed with the services and the comfort given to women who are looking for a safe haven and I’m very supportive of their mission.”

Improvements now possible

The merger will enable improvements to be implemented, such as greater security in the buildings.

“Mercy Housing Lakefront is sponsored by nine motherhouses and once we focused on merging with them, we spent over a year on due diligence and talking with them and they did the same,” said Neuberger. “We both looked at each other’s financial statements and wanted to be sure that the mission of St. Catherine’s was preserved to care exclusively for women. We reached a common mission statement and voted to merge with Mercy Housing Lakefront to expand the mission of Mercy Housing in southeast Wisconsin.”

Aside from additional security, no major changes will be made from the mission perspective. According to Neuberger, what St. Catherine Residence lacked was the ability to run the home as professionally as it should be and with the financial resources to make needed repairs, such as replacing the elevators and making updates in the residences.

“Mercy Housing Lakefront runs hundreds of these apartments and have the protocols and software and from a volunteer board perspective, we didn’t know about these things,” he explained. “We looked at what they did at the Johnston Center and were impressed with the management of the facility, human resources, security software and fundraising. We were impressed with the stuff they brought to the table and very impressed with their expertise. We hope women look at this and see they are much more secure and can get financial resources and other help quicker.”  Karen Mahoney