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Humility Housing will buy St. Mary's
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Humility Housing will buy St. Mary's

  • Updated

The former St. Mary Catholic Church campus in west Davenport is being sold to the nonprofit Humility Homes & Services organization to use to provide housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

The closing date for the sale is Dec. 15, Ashley Velez, executive director, said.

The campus at 6th and Fillmore streets consists of four buildings sitting on 4.5 acres — a church, rectory and former convent and school, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There also are about two acres of green space west of the church that was Davenport's first Catholic cemetery, dating to 1849, and where some burials from the 1920s and earlier still remain.

St. Mary, the city's fourth oldest Catholic church, was shuttered earlier this year by the bishop of the Davenport Diocese and the congregation was merged with the downtown St. Anthony Church, with a final farewell Mass celebrated at St. Mary on Oct. 10.

Negotiations for the sale were already well underway by then. Although the purchase price is not being disclosed, Sister Mary Ann Vogel, of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, the Davenport-based order of Catholic sisters that started what is now Humility Services & Homes, said the cost was donated by the order from money received in a bequest.

The order "received a bequest and the wishes of the donor were to have the funds benefit the housing program," Vogel said in an email. "When it was announced that the St. Mary property was for sale, Humility Homes and Services, Inc. saw it as a wonderful opportunity to expand services and to centralize operations.

"The CHM leadership determined the wishes of the donor could be fulfilled by transferring the bequest to Humility Homes and Services, Inc. for the purchase of the property."

The campus will be named the Jubilee Center in honor of the sisters, Velez said.

New uses

In its new life, the 150-year-old Gothic-style brick church will be repurposed as Humility's Fresh Start Center, a place where people establishing homes can pick up, for free, items they need such as furniture, pots and pans, clothing or personal hygiene items, and the general public can purchase items as they would in an estate shop, Velez said.

All religious items in the church, including pews and paintings, will be removed before Humility moves in, she said.

The large brick rectory built in 1868 will provide housing to women, offering eight sleeping rooms with shared bathrooms, a kitchen and living areas at rents they can afford.

The former brick convent built in 1901, already converted into office space and some classrooms, will be Humility Home's main administrative office, moving from its current location in the existing Fresh Start building, 3805 Mississippi Ave., off of West Kimberly Road.

And the school, already converted to a parish hall, will continue for now as a gathering space, especially for the area's Hispanic residents who had a special bond with St. Mary's, Velez said.

In the future it's possible the two-story brick building could be rehabbed into housing, but that is not in the current plans.

The green space will be used for gardening and as a playground, uses that have been OK'd by the Office of the State Archeologist of Iowa that, under Iowa law, has a say-so in what happens to burial sites, Velez said.

Moving to the St. Mary site makes sense for the organization because it puts it closer to the people it serves, including the 72-bunk Humility Shelter at 1016 W. 5th St. and some 18 other buildings consisting of a total of 50 units that it owns throughout the neighborhood.

"Our mission and heart is down there," Velez said.

Relocation will happen in stages, but Velez said she hopes the organization will be mostly settled in by late spring.

How Humility housing got its start

The organization that is Humility Homes & Services traces its beginning to 1987 when several members of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary started monthly meetings to explore unmet needs in the Quad-Cities.

Through many meetings, housing kept surfacing as an unmet need.

In time, the congregation authorized a "dream committee" to start a transitional housing program for single-parent families experiencing homelessness.

In 1990, a corporation called Humility of Mary Housing was formed, with the sisters loaning it money to purchase its first property, a fourplex housing four young mothers and their four babies.

Housing was an entirely different venture for the congregation, "and it was a lot for our sisters to say 'yes' to that," Sister Vogel said. 

Gradually, through donations of properties, grants and many volunteer hours of rehab, Humility of Mary Housing grew.

Stepping up in time of crisis

Twice in the past 12 years, Humility housing and the Humility sisters came to the community's rescue by stepping in at a time of crisis.

The first was in September 2008, when the John Lewis Community Services shelter, the only emergency shelter in the Quad Cities that housed about 80 people per night, was facing bankruptcy.

City and business leaders asked Humility of Mary, which had management experience and was known to be competent and fiscally responsible, to help keep the shelter open.

Within 30 days, $300,000 was raised through collaborative efforts of business, philanthropic, religious, and personal donations. With funding secured, the sisters founded a second corporation called Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc. to take over and operate the former John Lewis building, keeping the doors open and services uninterrupted.

"That was a big jump for us," Sister Vogel said, in a bit of understatement. "But it was such a big need and so we said yes. But we said 'you've got to help us.' We said we needed $300,000. Our mistake was we should have said we need $300,000 every year." 

Ten years later, Humility of Mary Housing, Inc. and Humility of Mary Shelter, Inc. merged to become one organization, Humility Homes & Services, eliminating duplicate boards and administration.

About four months later, the second community crisis occurred.

In early November 2018, the director of King's Harvest Ministries, another Davenport nonprofit that had long provided emergency shelter in the winter — Dec. 1 to April 15 — said it couldn't do it anymore.

Word spread like wildfire and Humility Homes & Services called a meeting with the mayor of Davenport and representatives of other agencies, including The Center, a ministry of St. John's United Methodist Church; The Salvation Army; One Eighty, a Christian ministry serving those in crisis, poverty and addiction; Family Resources Inc., a social service agency, all of Davenport; Bethany for Children & Families, Moline; the city of Davenport's community planning and economic development department; and the Scott County's Community Services Department.

After some scrambling, the groups came up with a solution to carry through this winter: The King's Harvest emergency shelter would remain open, but it would be managed by staff hired by Humility Homes & Services, paid with $60,000 that had been pledged by the community over the preceding 2½ weeks.


As members of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary grow older and young women are not joining to take their place, Humility Homes & Services has moved to more lay leadership, and this year Lloyd Kilmer, of LeClaire, was selected as the first lay board chairman.

And while the sisters have given a lot of monetary and volunteer labor to support housing efforts, there is recognition that that won't last forever either. In that regard, the board will have to raise more money on its own. "We've never had a capital campaign," Kilmer said.

At the same time, Humility Homes & Services has seen the need for housing grow.

When the Humility sisters first started meeting on housing in the late 1980s, the national goal was to eliminate homelessness in 10 years, Sister Vogel recalls.

But since then homelessness has increased and is expected to continue increasing with the end of government unemployment benefits and rent support related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kilmer said.

Another concern is that affordable housing is disappearing because of increasing rents. The Quad-Cities has lost 6,645 units of affordable housing in the last five years due to rising rents, Velez said. By affordable, she means those that rent from $400 to $600 per month.

Safe, affordable housing is a crisis in every city in the country, Kilmer added.

To help meet the need, "St. Mary's kind of dropped in our lap to a certain extent," Kilmer said.

And that is serendipitously beneficial for several reasons, he said.

Recognizing that closing a church is emotionally wrenching, the Humility board saw purchasing the St. Mary campus as "a great opportunity to do a 'reset' for the neighborhood and the area, to put buildings and properties back to good use by repurposing them," Kilmer said.

Former parishioners will see that the buildings are being taken care of, not left to deteriorate.

Second, the purchase allows Humility Homes and Services to expand — there will be more office space, more Fresh Start shopping space and the rectory will provide immediate new housing.

This will fit with the organization's strategic plan — the first one was developed this year — to begin serving in Illinois, Kilmer said.

And third, Humility Homes & Services "can be a presence" in the neighborhood, Sister Vogel said.

And that is a homecoming of sorts for the sisters who were the last religious order to teach in the parish school.


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