Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared regularly in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds BS and MS degrees and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside in Connecticut.
Home construction hit a major milestone this month, as work officially began on "The Pope Francis House."
The Pope Francis House in the Asheville, N.C., area is the first Habitat for Humanity house in the country to honor the Pope.
Once completed later this year, this four-bedroom, two-bath dwelling will be the new home of LaShawn Meadows and her three children.
So how did a Habitat house get named after Pope Francis?
“That was the request of the anonymous donor,” Greta Bush of the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity explained to me. “It was their concept and idea, and they presented it to Habitat.”
The anonymous donor picked up the tab for a full house sponsorship — $55,000.
Bush explained that this is the figure Habitat sets for sponsorship, although the house costs Habitat more to build, depending on factors such as size.
“I can say anytime a donor is able to give a sponsorship in memory of somebody, that makes ‘the build’ all the more special,” Bush emphasized. “It has meaning to the family and everyone involved.”
That also is the case for volunteers from the area’s Catholic churches, who are now helping to build this house for the Meadows family. This is an ecumenical “build” too, since Habitat also has many non-Catholic volunteers.
Betsy Warren, the sponsorship coordinator, confirmed this. “There has been an overwhelming positive and joyful reception from our Catholic partners, as well as from other Habitat supporters in the community: non-Catholic faith communities, volunteers, partner families and donors alike,” she said.
Warren was enthusiastic about all of the volunteers.
She made it clear that “the faith community has the largest corner on the Habitat sponsorship market in this area. Those folks are the foundation — where our volunteers, and donor base and prayers come from.”
Their volunteerism reaches way back, and a couple of denominations have even sponsored a house each year.
“We’re very fortunate, having a long history from our local faith communities,” Warren continued. “They commit to three things: volunteer support, financial support and prayer support for Habitat and the family.”
She said that the effort brings people together in mission and service.
In fact, the day after house project got under way with the official public wall-raising event and blessing on May 21, Warren told me: “Just today, we closed on our 15th interfaith house — that’s where our Catholic partners participate every year.”
Warren was particularly pleased to ask for volunteers for The Pope Francis House project from the four local Asheville area Catholic churches: St. Lawrence Basilica, St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church, the Parish of St. Eugene and St. Barnabas Catholic Church.
She was happy to tell the congregations, “I’m not asking for money, because a donor has obvious ties to the Catholic community. What we’re offering to you is to celebrate the Pope with Habitat and the community, with the first shot at providing volunteers. It was a gift to be able to give to our Catholic partners.”
Normally, Asheville Habitat builds a neighborhood by getting a large chunk of land and putting up 10 to 20 houses.
But the Pope Francis House is a bit different. It’s going up on a single lot “in an area with a strong and vibrant neighborhood revitalization,” she said. Habitat started this home-repair program in a neighborhood where people are already homeowners.
Bush identified it as the Shiloh neighborhood, a historically black neighborhood near the Biltmore estate, and she finds it “really neat that we are able to build a new house in the same neighborhood where we are doing repairs, so it covers the full gamut of what Habitat for Humanity is able to do in the community.”
During the wall-raising on May 21, Father Adrian Porras of St. Barnabas Catholic Church led the blessing.
One of his parishioners, who is on the Habitat board, asked him to offer the prayer and blessing at this event.
“Obviously, this donor had been very much affected by Pope Francis and his emphasis on the poor,” Father Porras told me the following day. “It sounds like that moved this person to donate this house.
“It is an ecumenical thing,” he added, “but the bulk of the volunteers are from Catholic churches in the area.”
LaShawn Meadows and her children were at the blessing and wall-raising, and she took the opportunity to speak.
“I don’t know who ‘anonymous’ is, but if you are out there, and you can hear me or see me, I want to say: Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart,” a happy Meadows said. “You just don’t know how much this means to me and my family. We really appreciate it. Thank you!”
Meadows also thanked the volunteers and Habitat staff, because “you do a lot for a lot of low-income families, and I am very appreciative of you.”
Kerney MacNeil, a Habitat volunteer and member of St. Lawrence Basilica, also added his thoughts.
“This project is a great example of what Habitat is all about,” he said. “We start with a very generous donor, who is motivated by Pope Francis to make a serious financial contribution, so we can buy materials to build a house. Then we have the staff and volunteers of Habitat, who all come together and take those materials and construct a solid, well-built house. Then it takes the partner families, like the Meadows and the hundreds of other families in Asheville who have become Habitat homeowners, to take the well-built house and turn it into a home.”
Later, in a news release, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity's executive director, Lew Kraus, offered another goal.
He said: “It is our hope, and that of the donor, that this project will serve as a model for other Habitat affiliates to partner with local Catholic churches and build in honor of Pope Francis.”