Nun's Program Gives Hope (And Faith) to Addicts

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Some people questioned whether a program based on prayer and work would cure drug and alcohol addicts. Would addicts want to say three daily rosaries, attend Mass, work in the fields and give up TV?

Our Lady of Hope Community in St. Augustine, Fla., proves they would — for a new life in Jesus.

In October, Our Lady of Hope celebrated its 10th anniversary. It was the first U.S. foundation sponsored by the Comunita Cenacolo, a Vatican-approved public association of the faithful that runs an international network of rehabilitation communities.

The Florida project was co-founded by Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., when he was rector of St. Augustine Cathedral-Basilica. He and a group of parishioners and area residents were looking for a program with a strong Catholic orientation to help the desperate men he encountered in food kitchens and shelters.

Bishop Baker recalls feeling strongly that the Blessed Mother wanted to reach out to these down-and-outs. He and his associates prayed rosaries and a novena to Our Lady of Hope.

Shortly thereafter, he was introduced to Sister Elvira Petrozzi and her Comunita Cenacolo through a priest in the Pontifical Council for the Family who considered hers the most successful program he had seen.

“She placed prayer of the Catholic Church, the Mass and the rosary at the center of rehabilitation,” Bishop Baker said. “And she wasn't shy about that.”

Sister Elvira began her religious community in Saluzzo, Italy, in a ramshackle villa on $1 to treat drug-and-alcohol-addicted men.

On average, a person goes through the rehabilitation program for three years — without charge. Private donations always seem to appear when supplies are needed. There are no funding campaigns.

“All we have has been provided for us,” said Albino Aragno, the Italian-born director of the Florida community, which now has 60 male residents. “It's a practical way of prayer.”

In fact, residents end their rosary petitioning St. Joseph to provide for them.

Daily life at Our Lady of Hope is structured, with Mass, community rosary, work on the farm — the men grow their own food — and frequent confession. A priest gives formal catecheses, and there are informal get-togethers and one-on-one encounters where the men learn and live the truth of the Gospel.

“We call it the school of life,” Aragno said.

He describes the life as a basic, simple, monastic way of living. There's no TV, no phone calls and no girlfriends.

“The reality is that happiness doesn't come from a lot of things but from simplicity, dealing with other people, opening up, looking inside ourselves when you don't have a lot of stimulation from the world,” Aragno said. “Living in a place like ours, we address ourselves with truth, we have time to look at ourselves inside and change our life. We fell ‘big time’ outside.”

Now the men fall to their knees for the rosary. Sister Elvira prescribes it three times a day. Praying while kneeling in the chapel gives strength to your will, Aragno explained of her reasoning. “We learn how much peace comes from prayer, and we get strength in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” he said.

“This is really their first contact with prayer that is real, vital and freeing,” Bishop Baker said.

Marty from Texas agrees. A man in his early 20s, he's been at Our Lady of Hope for three years.

“Prayer was real hard at first, going from what you think you want to do outside to kneeling down a half-hour praying the rosary,” he said. But it's given him a feeling of God's presence in his life.

Eucharistic adoration is also practiced both in community and on an individual basis — before or after work.

“In a concrete sense I can see myself better in my adoration times,” Marty said. “And not a day passes wasted. I can see what I did wrong that day and I can change the next day instead of waiting a month or year.”

Marty became a Catholic while in the community. He'd been a Baptist who didn't believe in miracles. But he says he saw miracles at Our Lady of Hope.

Aragno explained that the way Divine Providence provides for the community and the way men's lives change are the big miracles, the ones everyone can see.

Douglas, 41, is from New York and has been at Our Lady of Hope for three years.

“The prayer showed me the truth,” he said. “My main objective was to find the truth. I lost the truth. I believed my own lies. I had no other choice but to turn to God and ask him for all the answers. Now I make life a prayer.”

“Sister Elvira is not afraid to tell us the truth,” Aragno said. She's not worried about offending someone because “she's very determined to crush this old man and rebuild the new man.”

Aragno himself is one of the new men. He went through the program with one of the earliest groups in Florida, spending several years in the community. Sister Elvira then appointed him to direct the community in America and oversee the Latin American houses. And he's now been happily married for six years.

Retired Bishop John Snyder, who gave permission for Our Lady of Hope to open in the Diocese of St. Augustine, commented: “The title of their publication, Resurrection, typifies what you experience out there — men coming back to new life, finding purpose and meaning, finding they're not hopeless and ruined but that the Lord is reaching out to embrace them with his compassion and for giveness and giving them a sense of hope.”

He considers Sister Elvira “another version of Mother Teresa.” Since retiring in 2001, Bishop Snyder celebrates Mass for the community once or twice a week.

“I go out to minister to them, and I'm the one who's ministered to,” he said. “When you see people beginning to get on their feet and understand the mystery of God's love, it touches me as deeply as it touches them.”

Testifying to the success of the program is the way it has spread internationally since 1990. There are 43 houses now with 1,000 people in the program in Italy, Croatia, Ireland and Austria, as well as in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Lourdes, France.

The newest opened about 60 miles from Moscow in late 2003. Some of the houses are for women only, while those in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Mexico are exclusively for orphans and poor children whose families can't care for them.

In Italy, the Comunita Cenacolo now has a priest, Father Stefano Aragno, ordained in Italy; two deacons being ordained in February; six seminarians; and 25 sisters, plus postulants.

Reflecting on the program, Bishop Baker said he sees how it ties in to the New Evangelization as “a clear demonstration that rehabilitation is found through evangelization that leads to conversion of mind and heart.”

He wants to open a community in South Carolina, and Albino Aragno wants to see a second one in Florida.

As Aragno puts it, “For us the success is not only for a person to stop using drugs but if the person really embraces the ways of God.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.