Journey House: Sisters walk with women post prison

A New Journey’s First Steps

CSJs at Journey House in Kansas City walk with women transitioning from prison into new life: an interview with Sister Rose McClarney

By Sister Mary Flick, CSJ

Originally posted 2/19/2016
Reposted 2/22/2017

It’s said that a journey begins with a single step.

For Sisters Rose McLarney, Martha Niemann, and Gabriel Smits, Journey House in Kansas City began with a single question. Would they be interested in forming a house for women recently released from prison who have no place to go?

Their “yes” has brought them to a new ministry at a time when others are looking to retire from their ministerial journeys.

The question was asked of St. Theresa Little Flower community by Georgia Walker, executive director of Journey to New Life. Three of the five CSJs in residence there agreed to taking the bold step of starting something new. Last summer, they secured a building formerly used by the Society of St. Pius X, and got to work, adapting it to the needs of a new set of residents.

“The spirit is moving and giving us opportunities,” says Sister Rose.

Modeled after a program long-established by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, this residence in Kansas City where three CSJs and Walker live, offers a home and more to women who are transitioning out of the state penal system in Chillicothe, Missouri. It opened its doors last September and residents are coming – and grateful. 

The 25 women who have lived there since its opening range in age from late-50s to early-20s. They have served time for crimes ranging from assault to embezzlement, with the majority of their crimes related to financing their drug addictions. Many also have mental illness. “This is the reason why they don’t have a place to go,” says Sister Rose. “Their families are not willing to trust them.”

The challenges of trying to re-enter society without this good support base is almost overwhelming, she says. “They tell us they don’t know where they would be if they weren’t here.”

But Journey House is more than a place to stay. For many of the women it's family.  "This is a very welcoming place," Sister Rose says. "A couple of residents have said this is the best family they have ever had. They tell us, ‘We are treated as adults here.’”

Life at Journey House is based on the restorative model of justice. Restorative justice seeks to repair the harm experienced by the victims and to ensure that the offenders understand the consequences of their actions.   It’s a model Sister Rose knows well. She has taught a course on restorative justice for three years at Avila University. She also serve on the board of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Kansas City.

Journey House offers women who have recently been released from prison the first of three phases in the Journey to New Life program.  Women stay approximately 90 days and are able to complete their initial drug treatment, find stability in their mental health, and be connected with employment opportunities.

When they leave, they move to the second 90-day phase, receiving case management and an apartment with financial support. Today, there are 12 residents at Journey House, with four more women expected to arrive later this month.

“This is very much about relationship building,” Sister Rose says. “That’s what makes it CSJ. And we are involved because we are serving the dear neighbor – the one that few people in society want to deal with.”

The challenges are plenty. Sister Rose says that for the sisters, one of the greatest personal challenges is "being able to do self-care in the midst of a lot of needs.”

But there are also plenty of rewards. One of the greatest blessings of this ministry has been the overwhelming support they have received from the community, including the CSJ community. “During our Volunteer Days when we were putting the house together, sisters came and painted and scrubbed floors, with everyone else.”

And the involvement of the extended CSJ community in Kansas City has been inspirational. Staff at Avila University installed a computer lab at Journey House, and technicians come periodically to maintain it. The Medical Auxiliary from St. Joseph Hospital provided lunch on the Volunteer Days, and gave Journey House a supply of household furnishings.

Beyond the tangible gifts,  the spiritual gifts of the sisters in the Journey House community, have been essential to its success.

“Sisters Gabe and Martha are retired from pastoral care and have really good relational gifts,” Sister Rose says. “Martha did grief counseling. Many of the women here are grieving the loss of relationships. One woman’s father died 10 days before she was released from prison and she could not go to the funeral,” Sister Rose says. Martha is also a participant in 12-step groups. “The women really relate to her because she’s been where they are.”

Journey House offers something few other programs and models can.  “It’s in the casual living together that gives the women a chance to talk about their stories,” Sister Rose says.

For instance,  when one of the women received a phone call at 8 p.m. telling her that her child had been adopted, she was devastated. "Being here, she was surrounded by her support base and didn’t have to wait a day to talk with her case worker," Sister Rose says. "Just being around the women almost 24 hours a day gives us lots of opportunities for spontaneous interactions.”

For the Sisters of St. Joseph, a journey’s beginning, like Journey House, often involves saying “yes” to forming a relationship with the dear neighbor, whatever her story may be.

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