ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Since 1994, Comunità Cenacolo America (Community of the Cenacle) has been proving its fully faith-based program restores hope and turns addicts around. It accepts no government funding. It’s not a therapeutic program.
“It is a School of Life because we are trying to go back to the basics, living together in simplicity [there is no TV or radio], working hard, sacrificing, learning to do things you don’t like to do,” said Albino Aragno, the director of the community in the Americas. “Prayer is the foundation of community.”
Mother Elvira Petrozzi, an Italian Sister of Charity, opened the first Comunità Cenacolo in Saluzzo, Italy, in 1983 to treat drug- and alcohol-addicted men. Since then, the project has grown to 60 houses with 1,500 residents in countries such as Ireland, France, Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Some are for women, while missions in South America care for homeless, abandoned and abused children. Each house has a chapel and the Blessed Sacrament with Eucharistic adoration daily.
In 1999, a formation house opened in Italy, and there are already four priests from the community, 15 brothers, nearly 10 seminarians and 30 sisters in formation. On Dec. 8, 2005, Comunità Cenacolo was granted status as a Public Association of the Faithful.
When he was rector of St. Augustine Cathedral-Basilica and before he became a bishop, Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala., co-founded a community in St. Augustine, Fla.
That was nearly 15 years ago, and now there are three houses in St. Augustine: the original Our Lady of Hope, Mary Immaculate for men and St. Maria Goretti for women, which is to open this year.
Having a strong feeling the Blessed Mother wanted to get people off the streets, he met with a small group for a continuous novena to Our Lady of Good Hope.
He learned of Mother Elvira through a priest at the Vatican.
“The devotion to Mary was something I was looking for and I didn’t discover anyone else having that,” Bishop Baker said.
He had been asking, “Why aren’t we using our Catholic resources? We have the sacraments. … At times we’re too reluctant to share our faith with other people when that is the most important element in conversion and rehabilitation. Mother Elvira has figured that out and follows that pattern as few others I’ve seen do.”
“She has a strong prayer base that would run circles around any monastery,” he said. “The focus of the prayer life is the Eucharist and a strong Marian devotion.”
Everyone prays the Rosary three times a day — morning and evening in the chapel, and afternoons with fellow workers. She insisted, “People have to eat three times a day for our body; why not pray three times a day to feed our soul.”
“She’s not shy about it,” said Bishop Baker.
Nor is she shy about ordering a disciplined life because people struggling with addictions have self-centered dispositions that need corrections.
“These men understand that they struggle to overcome their addiction,” said Father Jeffrey Kirby. “There are no easy answers, no attempt to baby them. The real Gospel teaches both death and resurrection.”
Father Kirby spent six weeks at the community’s Saluzzo motherhouse while studying for the priesthood in Rome for the Diocese of Charleston, and counts the community as a big part of his understanding of the Church’s mission, especially with the New Evangelization.
“For me,” said Father Kirby, “in the second part of Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) when Pope Benedict is speaking about what authentic social action is, he’s talking about Comunità Cenacolo.”
Because the addicts have to relearn how to live, pray and sacrifice, Mother Elvira insists they take three years, unlike the three to six months for many other programs. This detachment from the world was challenging at first for 30-year-old Jeffrey, who has been with the community nearly three years, but most beneficial because it freed him “from all kinds of distractions from discovering Jesus,” he said.
Everyone works a full day, almost monastic in style, growing vegetables, building, repairing. Mother Elvira insists on total reliance on divine Providence. Addicts pay nothing. No state money is accepted.
“We experience every day the providence of God,” he said, as various donations arrive at just the right times. “Addicts don’t trust personally in their own life. So, by depending on the providence of God, you see God is working for us. It’s a beautiful teaching for us. You see God provides.”
Mother Elvira’s approach “leads addicts to real, authentic and enduring recovery,” observed Father Kirby.
No formal studies have measured percentages of success, but neither have studies been done for any other faith-based program, according to senior research associate Mary Gautier at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Aragno shies away from specific numbers.
“For us it’s considered a successful person who embraces and lives the faith and the Christian life outside,” he said. “You can go into any hospital to be detoxed. But to maintain that you have to embrace a new way of living.”
Joseph Pronechen is based in