Turning Empty Convents Into Evangelizing Young-Adult Residences: St. Elizabeth House Models How
Santa Barbara, California, initiative shows one way the Church can continue the mission of empty convents and rectories by transforming them into housing for those serving in the local Church’s parishes and apostolates.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — As an up-and-coming architect who takes her Catholic faith seriously, Alexis Stypa was looking in Santa Barbara both for a safe, affordable place to live and community with like-minded Catholic young adults.
On the ninth day of praying a novena for her housing dilemma, Stypa got her answer: St. Elizabeth House, a private residence for Catholic young-adult singles owned and operated by the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region.
“It’s a really great fit for me,” Stypa told the Register. For the past six months, she has been living at the St. Elizabeth House and serves as the residence manager.
St. Elizabeth House is the brainchild of Deacon Chris Sandner, the regional assistant to Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles in the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region.
Deacon Sandner told the Register that many dioceses are confronting the fact that they have vacant convents and rectories built at the turn of the 20th century for thousands of priests and religious that served parishes and schools. Those numbers no longer exist, even as the Church has grown.
“Times have changed. The building hasn’t,” he said.
But Deacon Sandner realized the Church had an opportunity: Turn those rooms that once housed priests, religious brothers and sisters into affordable private Catholic residences for Catholic young-adult singles, particularly those serving in the parishes.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we do [with the building] what it was meant to do, which is house single people?’” he said, specifically single people carrying out the work of the Church.
Deacon Sandner had already repurposed one convent into housing for single women, called Casa Loyola, before approaching Bishop Barron with the idea of St. Elizabeth House, which would house both men and women.
With the backing of Bishop Barron, the deacon repurposed a newly vacant convent with 14 individual rooms and bathrooms, a common living room, kitchen and outdoor patio into a new residence named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
Demand from young-adult Catholics for this kind of housing could not be higher. Like Casa Loyola, the St. Elizabeth House also has a waiting list. Since the house has no website or advertising, young Catholics find out about it by word of mouth and have to go through a vetting process to get in.
They need to submit an application with a personal recommendation, such as from their pastor. They then sign a month-to-month lease; at St. Elizabeth House, in total, the cost to stay at the house, according to Deacon Sandner, is half the cost of a studio or one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara (typically north of $2,000 without utilities). Residents cook their own food or collaborate together for common meals.
But residents are also obliged to follow the house rules if they want to continue staying month after month. This includes rules on cooking, cleaning up common areas and no guests in an individual’s room.
“We do have men and women, but we have very strict rules about how they behave and where they can go in the building,” Deacon Sandner said. Each individual has his or her own private room and bathroom, where only he or she is permitted. The only permitted shared spaces where residents can mingle are the common areas, such as the living room, patio and kitchen. Deacon Sandner said the solution of turning convents and rectories into residential offerings like St. Elizabeth House advances the Church’s mission, keeps the buildings occupied, and generates enough income to maintain them. And it keeps the Church’s tax exemption because it is a residence that serves the work of the Church.
“We need teachers in our schools; our parishes need young people,” he said. “Young people have a tough time living in this town if they’re not on scholarships and so forth.”
Bishop Barron told the Register that he is “an enthusiastic advocate of the idea of providing housing for young people working in connection with the Church.” He said Deacon Sandner “deserves the lion’s share of the credit for realizing this project.”
“Our hope is that the St. Elizabeth House will continue to be not only a place to live, but also a community in which the faith can be fostered,” Bishop Barron said. “Those who live there go forth every day to proclaim the Gospel, and, in that way, the St. Elizabeth House is a center for evangelization.”
Draw of Catholic Community
Cameron Wallace, 29, another resident at St. Elizabeth House, told the Register that the Catholic community offered by St. Elizabeth House “was a huge draw.”
“That helps strengthen my faith,” he said.
Wallace said he appreciates the opportunity to meet other people, especially other young Catholics, in the area. The house has some people who work from home during the day, while the rest go out to work.
“People hang out in the evening in the common area,” he said.
Everyone in the community goes to their parish for Mass on Sundays. But through the week, they share both prayer and worship together. A group regularly says Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours at 9pm. Deacon Sandner offers First Friday Adoration, and area priests will come offer Mass on First Saturdays and other occasions.
“We also do ‘Praise and Worship’ in the chapel with other friends,” Wallace said.
The house has developed a weekly breakfast, as one resident likes to make cinnamon rolls and another person enjoys roasting coffee.
Stypa, 27, the residence manager at St. Elizabeth House, told the Register that the house offers community in Santa Barbara that is otherwise hard to come by.
“The village dance doesn’t exist,” she said. “But this house has been an opportunity to bring young people together.”
She said the residents put together a “Friendsgiving” for the Thanksgiving holiday that was attended by approximately 60 people.
Stypa, who is an architect with an interest in historic buildings and works with some local chapels, has also made updates to the interior, by painting and refurbishing its 1950s “convent chic” to a fresh, warm look for young adults in the 2020s. She anticipates staying a year or two.
“We’ll see what opportunity brings,” she said. “This is a really great fit for me.”
Sandy Barba, a former Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionary, who works in faith formation at St. Julie Billiart parish in Newbury Park, about 45 minutes travel from St. Elizabeth House, told the Register she greatly values the community.
Barba works in youth ministry and said high-school students can be a “tough crowd,” so it is rewarding to be able to spend time afterwards with Catholic young adults who are also a “wealth of information.”
The Presence of Christ
She said the chapel in the St. Elizabeth House is a major source of spiritual consolation. Barba said she makes a cup of coffee and then spends time in the chapel with the Lord, before heading out for a day of youth ministry.
During the early months of the pandemic, “All of the churches were shut down, but we still had the Blessed Sacrament in the house.”
Barba said the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Elizabeth House was a priority of Bishop Barron and Deacon Sandner.
“They want the Lord to be present there,” she said.
According to Deacon Sandner, the average stay at St. Elizabeth House is one to two years, as these young-adult Catholics generate their own ideas and plans and then discover their vocation, whether it is to marriage, priesthood or religious life.
“They’re taking this experience with them. It’s something in their bones now,” he said. “Every parish is a beneficiary of their sense of being a faithful Catholic adult.”
Deacon Sandner said he would love to see more houses like St. Elizabeth House support young people who may not be wearing clerical collars or habits like their original residents but are serving the Church in parish ministries and apostolates.
“It is just a matter of taking those buildings, and not repurposing them,” he said, “but to honor the original purpose, which is to support the apostolic work of the Church.”
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