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November 4, 2004 Edition

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This week:
'Mother Teresa of Nigeria': Inspires Madison volunteers to feed the hungry
  Sidebar: Pro Labore Dei
Seton House: Helping women, children
• Front-page photo and poem: Blessings of Autumn / Autumn Conversion
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News Briefs

News Briefs:
Spiritual Mentoring

MADISON -- The adult education series continues at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish on Thursday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m.

Speaker will be Sr. Clare Wagner on "Spiritual Mentoring." People interested in having someone to help them grow in their spiritual life are invited to ask questions and learn more about mentoring.

Sister Clare, a Sinsinawa Dominican, ministers as a spiritual guide, teacher of spirituality, and retreat leader. She is coordinator of the Spiritual Guidance Training Program at Siena Center in Racine.

Schoenstatt retreat

MADISON -- A retreat will be held Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13 and 14, at Schoenstatt Heights entitled "Become a New Person the Schoenstatt Way." The retreat will explore the educational means which Schoenstatt offers in growing closer to the Lord.

The retreat will be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Schoenstatt Heights, 5901 Cottage Grove Rd. Retreat master is Fr. Gerold Langsch. The retreat includes talks, Mass, and opportunity for confession.

Cost is $25 for meals plus a donation for the priest. Overnight accommodations are available for $15. For reservations, call Irene at 608-222-4655.

Mass at Briggsville

BRIGGSVILLE -- Fr. Giovanni Braschi of the world Shrine of Saint Philomena will concelebrate a Mass with Fr. Jim Murphy at St. Mary Church in Briggsville at 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 15.

Father Braschi will give the homily. He is preparing for the 200th anniversary celebration of Saint Philomena's remains being brought from the catacombs of Saint Priscilla in Rome to Mugnano del Cardinale in Italy. This celebration will be held in 2005.

CPR courses

MADISON -- "Family and Friends: Infant and Child CPR Course" for individuals wanting training in infant and child CPR for personal reasons will be offered by Dean/St. Marys Health Works at St. Marys Hospital, 707 S. Mills St., from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 8; Monday, Nov. 29; Monday, Dec. 6; Wednesday, Dec. 15; and Monday, Dec. 20.

Course fee is $25. Pre-registration is required by calling 608-824-4400 or 1-800-368-5596.

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photo of Jim Flad and Mercedes Pozo with Sr. Stella-Maris Okonkwo

Local Pro Labore Dei members Jim Flad and Mercedes Pozo talk with Sr. Stella-Maris Okonkwo during her recent visit to Madison. (Catholic Herald photo by Julianne Nornberg)

'Mother Teresa of Nigeria': Inspires Madison volunteers
to feed the hungry

MADISON -- Are there hungry people in Madison?

Most Madison residents probably don't think so. They believe that the government or private agencies are taking care of feeding the hungry.

It took a Sister from Nigeria to open the eyes of a group of Madison volunteers to the plight of the hungry and homeless.

Known as the "Mother Teresa of Nigeria," Sr. Stella-Maris Okonkwo says God told her several years ago to come to Madison. "He said to me, 'I am preparing the people. When it is ready, I will let you know.'"

God finally told her in September of 2003 to travel to Madison. "I didn't even have a visa," said Sister Stella-Maris in an interview during her recent visit to Madison. "In a most miraculous manner, I went to the embassy and explained my mission. Immediately I got my visa."

Pro Labore Dei

Sr. Stella-Maris Okonkwo founded Pro Labore Dei in 1990 as a response to God's call to "go out into the streets and slum areas where people are suffering and look after the poor."

In Nigeria her organization feeds the hungry, distributes clothing, provides health services, visits prisoners, cares for orphans, and provides education and religious services.

Local support group

On her arrival in Madison last year, she met Steve Banaszak and Jim Flad. They had learned of Sister Stella-Maris' work with the poor and destitute in Nigeria and had formed a support group in Madison of her organization, Pro Labore Dei (PLD).

The group had been meeting monthly to pray, sing, read Scripture, and meditate. They also sent financial support to some of the needy children in Nigeria helped by Sister Stella-Maris.

When she came to Madison in 2003, Sister Stella-Maris told the local group to "feed the poor." She insisted the Lord told her that there are hungry people in Madison.

Feeding the hungry

She told them, "Let's go to the heart of the city." The volunteers prepared food and went with Sister Stella-Maris to the downtown State St. area.

Jim Flad recalls, "With some uncertainty in our steps, two of us walked out onto the street with 12 paper lunch bags in our hands. But our loving God showed us the way as we encountered one homeless person after another, thankful for the food and some even blessing us for our gift to them.

"The 12th person received this food and wanted to give us something in return. Imagine our surprise as he sang 'Amazing Grace' to us there on the street!"

The Pro Labore Dei group - wearing bright orange aprons - has continued to feed the hungry every Friday since Sept. 26, 2003. They began feeding people each Saturday a few months later.

Others join effort

"Of course, none of this would have been possible if our Lord, Jesus, had not sent us helpers to do his work - just as Sister Stella-Maris predicted would happen," said Flad. "Six kind people have helped PLD members by preparing and/or distributing food to the homeless every Friday and Saturday.

"In addition, four homeless men have been helping to carry and distribute food and to identify other homeless people as we walk down the street. One shop owner has been anonymously donating $10 for food for the homeless we serve."

"It's a blessing for us to work with the homeless," said Mercedes Pozo, a PLD member. "We are part of a family. It is beautiful."

Besides food, the PLD members have helped the homeless people in other ways. "We help them fill out job applications and write letters," said Flad.

They assisted a pregnant woman this summer with food, clothing, and household items.

Anyone interested in helping the Pro Labore Dei group may call Jim Flad at 608-833-5472.

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Seton House: Helping women, children

MADISON -- It's been a year of note for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton House, a transitional housing program for women and children.

In 2004 the program, which is run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrated its 15th year, opened a third location - a two-bedroom, fully furnished house - and has plans to purchase an additional two-unit apartment house.

The program provides furnished homes for women and children who are moving from unstable situations to permanent housing in the community.

For women like Mary (not her real name), it's made a huge difference.

"Seton House gave me the chance to start all over again," she said.

Mary sought help from Seton House in April. Even though she had a job, a poor credit history kept her from getting a regular apartment for herself, her school-age son, and the baby she was expecting.

She and her son moved into a two-bedroom unit in Seton House in April. In early September she gave birth to a girl. "My plan is to stay another couple of months until I'm off maternity leave," said Mary, who works as a certified nursing assistant. "Then I'm going to find permanent housing."

Services offered

The three Seton House locations - which include five, three, and two units, respectively - offer free rent; participants cover program fees of $300 to $450 per month. Units range in size from single-person lofts to dwellings large enough for a mother and six children.

Women and children typically stay from three to six months, but services are available for up to two years. While staying in a fully furnished unit, residents get help working on goals and addressing issues related to parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, employment, credit history, domestic abuse, and past homelessness.

Seton House staff provides support and referrals to social service agencies. Counseling for children is also available.

The key to Seton House is that it gives women with a history of hardship the opportunity to focus during critical periods of change, so that they can raise their children in safety and contribute to the community.

"I like Seton House because it gives me a chance to work out some of the problems I have. It gives me a safe place to stay that is stable and comfortable, and a chance to save up some money," said Mary.

History, staff

It all started in spring 1989, when the Society of St. Vincent de Paul purchased a three-story, five-unit apartment building in Madison and named it after Elizabeth Ann Seton. Seton, born in 1774, was a widowed mother with three daughters when she converted to Catholicism and founded the first community for religious women in the United States. She also founded the country's first Catholic school for girls to be staffed by nuns.

Ralph Middlecamp, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said the main strength of Seton House over the years has been its staff.

"They've all brought their talents and gifts to the program to help the women and children residing there," he said.

Seton House is one of a few local transitional housing programs that has been able to expand over the years with the support of donors and volunteers. Volunteers do everything from maintenance and cleaning to bookkeeping and hands-on work with clients. They work from one to 40 hours per month.

For more information, to volunteer, or to inquire about Seton House residency and services, call 608-819-1061. Similar programs for men are available through Port St. Vincent, which can be reached by calling 608-257-2036.

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