Sister Corinne Florek, OP
Former Collaborative Dominican Novitiate Transformed into Home for Women in Transition
November 10, 2020, St. Louis, Missouri – Does this photo above look familiar? For many Dominican Sisters, this was their home during their canonical novitiate year in St. Louis. The Collaborative Dominican Novitiate (CDN) moved to this location in 2001.
Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP (Adrian) and Cathy Arnold, OP (Peace) worked here for two years until it was decided to move the novitiate to Chicago. Moving out was one thing, but what to do with the house was another. Through a series of connections and collaboration, the former novitiate has become a home for women transitioning from jail or prison to new life in the community.
Sister Julie Schwab, OP (Sinsinawa) spent a few days at the CDN in the Fall of 2019 and, when she heard that the house would be sold, she gave Sister Cathy a list of organizations who needed more housing in St. Louis. “I was at the National Association of Recovery Residences (NARR) Conference and had been thinking how that house would lend itself to recovery housing, so I asked around to see who was looking for more space,” she said.
Sitting next to Sister Julie during the conference was Laura Toledo, Executive Director of the Center for Women in Transition, who told her that her agency was hoping to open a new home for women in the near future. The Center is a St. Louis-based nonprofit whose mission is to advocate for and assist women in the criminal justice system to support their successful transition to family and community.
Laura and her colleague, Barbara Baker, came to see the novitiate and immediately felt that the house would be a perfect fit. “The house has an aura of peace and comfort,” Laura said. “We fell instantly in love with the place.”
“I felt grateful to help make the connections in this process, and that the changes that the CDN made to the house in 2002 matched the needs of the women who will live there now,” Sister Cathy said. “I hope the women enjoy the house as much as we did.”
Sister Cathy made yet another connection: this time between Laura and Sister Corinne Florek, OP (Adrian), then Executive Director of the Religious Communities Impact Fund (RCIF), to request a low-interest loan for the purchase.
While she loved the idea of repurposing the novitiate to be used as a ministry for women, Sister Corinne said, she did not have enough funds at the time for the entire loan. She put Laura in contact with Sarah Smith, Director of the Mercy Partnership Fund in St. Louis.
“Sisters of Mercy were among the Center’s founders, so we were eager to collaborate with RCIF in supporting [the Center’s] work in providing housing opportunities for women leaving the criminal justice system,” Sarah said.
Laura secured a forgivable loan from the St. Louis Mental Health Board and, with the loans from the RCIF and the Mercy Partnership Fund, the transition became a reality in July. In September, the first residents moved into the Sharon House, a long-term residence for up to 24 women, named for Sister Sharon Schmitz, RSM.
“What going to Sharon House means to me is a chance to be independent again with a little structure, which for a recovering addict and alcoholic is very important,” said Beverly, one of the first residents. “The positive environment, neighborhood, sober living, and the sense of safety and security is so what I need and look forward to. For me, it is a wonderful, better way of life and support.”
For both Sister Corinne and Sarah, this is what impact investing is all about. Keeping assets in the community and affordable and helping the most vulnerable – not financial return – are the goals.
“Projects like this are what give me the energy to continue to do this work,” Sister Corinne said. “I hope others will consider how to use their investments to create hope and resilience for all in our community, especially those who have been excluded for so long.”
For the many Dominican Congregations whose women made their novitiate here, Sharon House is a wonderful new ministry that embodies the spirit of the Dominican tradition, “give to others the fruits of their contemplation.”
The Dominican Congregations of Adrian, Hope, Houston, Mission San Jose, San Rafael, and Tacoma are among the sponsors of RCIF.