Brian Mogren: Being Who He is and Being That Well

Brian Mogren: Vis Companion, Director of St. Jane House

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

“Be who you are and be that well.” St. Francis de Sales

It’s been a decade since Brian Mogren quit a long-held job at Target Stores to heed the call of St. Francis de Sales to “Be Who You are and Be That Well.” In that time, what Mogren has been is the provider of shelter to the temporarily homeless, the purveyor of a quiet space for spiritual seekers and a persistent, insistent, consistent friend of the Visitation Sisters, his neighbors in North Minneapolis. His work won him the Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service from the esteemed McKnight Foundation, given to those who “give their time to improve the lives of people in their communities.” He’s done that all right and along the way served as an unofficial counselor, coordinator, gardener, director and caretaker for those who use his home on Emerson Avenue North. “This opened up a world of possibility for me and my life,” Mogren writes on his website, “that I could not have imagined: bringing my unique gifts, creativity and connections to contribute to the transformation of North Minneapolis.”

A Call to the Northside

With Two Marys: Brian and FDTL Founder Mary Johnson Roy and Sr. Mary Margaret McKenzie

Mogren’s transformation began, in part, when he met the Sisters. Since 2008, the Sisters have leased his home (The St. Jane House) for retreats to women seeking empowerment, students wanting enlightenment and mothers shedding resentment. A grass-roots group, From Death to Life, counts the St. Jane House as its home. Its founder is Mary Johnson, a mother who sought out, and forgave, the man who killed her only son. Mogren serves on the board.

“This is what it’s all about – connecting across difference and discovering our common humanity.” — Brian Mogren

His journey owes something to an epiphany moment years ago when he was leaving a parish council meeting at St. Philips Catholic Church on 26th and Bryant Ave. N.   He noticed a woman frantically trying to pick up papers strewn about the street; she’d left them on top of her car as she pulled away. Now she was scurrying to pick up the papers and sheet music and Mogren gave her a hand. They walked back to the church arm in arm. The moon was out. The evening was quiet. And Mogren felt at peace. Suddenly a car with dark-tinted windows pulled alongside, rap music pounding as the back window began to roll down. Mogren’s moment of bliss turned to terror, fearing they could get hustled, hassled or hurt. Just then, a teenage boy stuck his head out the window, smiled and said, “Hi, Miss Muggs.” This was a teenager talking to a 70-year-old Irish Catholic.

Role model and friends.

“They had love and affinity for one another,” Mogren recalls. “Later I wept. I thought, ‘Oh, my Gosh.’ This is what it’s all about – connecting across difference and discovering our common humanity. I felt called to move to the Northside.” He did, building what would become the St. Jane House in 2003. .He moved in and became an official North Minneapolis resident, still holding on to his creative job at Target. He decided to quit, after 24 1/2 years, following another epiphany experience – this time while listening to a tape of students’ spoken-word poetry.

“[Brian] has mentored a few young people who look on him as a role model and friend. He loves North Minneapolis and it shows.” Sr. Karen Mohan,VHM

I remember hearing the urgency in their voices,” he says, “and in that moment my heart was burning. I needed to do what I could to ease the pain and provide a path for those who needed it. I wanted to make a difference.” A big part of the difference began when the Sisters and Mogren got together with the St. Jane House. He had the space. They had the plans. They’d bring the people. He’d be the director.

St. Jane House Ministry

St. Jane House: A Place of Rest and Delight

In the years that followed, the St. Jane house has provided guest rooms for overnight visitors, hosted a weekly centering prayer group, offered retreats for healing and support groups and served as home base for students – high school and college – seeking an “immersion experience” in the flow of neighborhood life.

“I feel loved and celebrated by the Sisters….They embody the God of my understanding, and they define the notion of inclusion. I am able to give to others what I receive from them.”

It doesn’t surprise Sister Karen Mohan that Mogren can handle such varied groups with finesse, grace and hospitality. It was modeled by his parents, Jerry and Arlene, who were quick to welcome others to the Molgren family. He’s had a lot of practice. “When we became ‘family and friends’ with Brian,” she recalls, “we inherited all his brothers – 11 brothers and no sisters. When our community went to his mom’s home for one of the family get-together suppers, we were welcomed by a big sign outside on the lawn. “’WELCOME SISTERS. WE ALWAYS WANTED SISTERS. And now we have them. YOU.’ We love the Mogren boys and we loved Arlene, their mother. After her funeral a few years ago, the 10 living brothers all carried her casket singing, ‘She’s ain’t heavy. She’s our mother.’ There wasn’t a dry eye around.”

Loved and Celebrated by the Sisters

Family and Friends: The Mogren Brothers, Mother, and Visitation Sisters

“It’s wonderful to be in the presence of the [Sisters’] non-judgmental, joyful spirit. They have helped me to be gentle with myself and that helps me to be gentle with others.” 

Mogren remembers first meeting the Sisters at St. Philips where he started attending mass because of his respect for Father Greg Tolaas. He met them there, but he really got to know them after he moved to North Minneapolis. “I feel loved and celebrated by the Sisters,” Mogren says, “ever since I met them. It’s wonderful to be in the presence of their non-judgmental, joyful spirit. They have helped me to be gentle with myself and that helps me to be gentle with others. They embody the God of my understanding, and they define the notion of inclusion.

“I don’t see any other than the life I’m living,” he says. “I get to be who I am and to be that well.”

“I am able to give to others what I receive from them. They have entrusted me with their platform and space.” He’s been a fine defender and caretaker of that Salesian spirituality, in the opinion of Jeff Pearson, a long-time friend and benefactor of the Sisters. “Brian can weather the storms,” Pearson says. “If it doesn’t work one way, he’ll figure out a different way. He’s got the kind of compassion that keeps him coming back.”

Brian with Alafia Foundation Members

Sister Karen notes that Mogren, now 51 years old, is something of a Renaissance man, who’s an artist, a graphic designer, a photographer and a fun-loving guy with a sense of humor. Mogren, who lives in the basement of the St, Jane House, prefers to think of it as “the garden level.” “Brian was inspired to begin the Alafia Foundation to encourage leaders from the neighborhood,” Mohan says. “He has mentored a few young people who look on him as a role model and friend. He loves North Minneapolis and it shows.” Mogren would smile at that description. He’s a man who loves where he is: in his city, in his heart, in his life.   “I don’t see any other than the life I’m living,” he says. “I get to be who I am and to be that well.” That’s why the welcome mat is out at the St. Jane House.

* This is the thirteenth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Walking With Us: Servant Leader Anne Attea

A mother’s heart: Anne and Bela

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

At a time when Latino communities throughout America are uneasy and uncertain over government travel bans and immigration crackdowns, Latinos at Ascension Catholic Church in North Minneapolis could be grateful for Anne Attea: She’s had their backs – every day, for the past nine years.

Her title is pastoral associate and she brings to the job a minister’s education, a missionary’s experience and a mother’s heart. She’s got a master’s of divinity from Loyola University-Chicago. She’s served in Mexico, Guatemala and Chile. She’s the mother of 11-year-old Isabela.

Attea’s mission at Ascension is to help Latino members grow in their Catholic faith, to develop new leaders, to provide access for families to a myriad of public and private assistance programs and, perhaps most important, to offer her prayerful support.

“I feel the stress that is in the air for our Latino community,” she says. “I want to be of help day to day. I can write letters for them. I can help them fill out paperwork.  I can help them find legal assistance when they need it. And, of course, I can pray with them.” — Anne Attea, Pastoral Associate at Church of the Ascension

Gerardo Escamilla Vargas, his wife and four sons are Ascension members. He owns a roofing and siding company – As Professionals, We Have You Covered – with 12 employees and is one of the 400 to 500 parishioners who attend the mass every Sunday for Spanish speakers. The mention of Attea’s name brings a smile to his face.

“She’s been like my mentor,” Escamilla Vargas says. “She teaches me about our faith. I like the way she lives hers. She’s a good leader who sees the God in all of us. And she helps without question.”

Attea knows her help, and her prayers, are needed now more than ever. She says Latino church members tell her that some people have become emboldened to say hurtful things and harbor racist thoughts about immigrants and those whose color and culture are different from their own.

“It’s the children who suffer the most,” she says. “They fear that when they get home from school, one of their parents could be missing (arrested or deported). Attea feels that immigration authorities are no longer just targeting criminals for deportation.

 “I am comforted to know [Anne Attea] is at Ascension, helping the community I care so much about.”– Sr. Mary Virginia Schmidt

“I feel the stress that is in the air for our Latino community,” she says. “I want to be of help day to day. I can write letters for them. I can help them fill out paperwork.  I can help them find legal assistance when they need it. And, of course, I can pray with them.”

Attea has developed that helping hand since she was an undergraduate at Notre Dame. She decided medicine was not for her and majored in theology, recalling that a course in “liberation theology” was eye opening.

She got a chance to put it in practice in Chile, in a volunteer program with Holy Cross Associates. “I worked in the town parish,” she says, “and I learned the Holy Cross fathers had a great commitment to the poor. I was 24 years old and got to do a little of everything: teaching, administering, serving whoever and wherever I could.”

Serving was just a part of Attea’s personal faith formation, shared and shaped by the Holy Cross Associates. The rest of the foundation included notions and admonitions of simplicity, social justice, spirituality and community. These are right out of the daily playbook of the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis. Attea met them in 1998 and ever since has been attending their Wednesday morning mass.

The Sisters are people who walk the talk,” she says. “They have included my daughter in some of their youth programs. They share their benefactors with us at the church. And I support their causes. Most important, I feel I am walking with them.

The Sisters have no doubt about that. “I remember when Anne first walked into our Wednesday mass,” says Sister Mary Virginia Schmidt. “She’s very caring and concerned, but I also sense her independence, combined with determination.”

“Those (qualities) are needed to help the Latino members at her church. Anne needs to help them get answers and assistance. I am comforted to know she’s at Ascension, helping the community I care so much about.”

Schmidt says she’ll never forget the day when Attea, who had wanted so badly to adopt a child, came into the monastery carrying Isabela in her arms. Attea adopted her daughter when she was just an infant in Guatemala. Isabela has a strong connection to her roots and may one day want to return to her native country. Here in the Twin Cities, she is doing well in school, fluent in two languages.

As for her own future, Attea is open to “wherever the spirit calls” her, perhaps in Latin America or in the Twin Cities.  “One thing is very clear to me,” she says. “I do feel called to walk with those who are struggling.”

In the life she’s lived so far, Anne Attea has had plenty of practice.

* This is the twelfth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

The Gentle Strength of Gerry McKay — Vis Companion and Friend

Gerry McKay at the Neighborhood CleanUp (right in glasses)

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

To say Gloria “Gerry” McKay has roots in her North Minneapolis neighborhood (old Highland) is something of an understatement.  McKay has been there longer than most of the trees on the north side.  She moved into her house on Fremont Avenue with her parents in 1928 – when she was two months old.

“I feel spiritually enriched by the Sisters. They show me, and all the others they’re connected with, kindness, gentleness and an open heart.” — Gerry McKay

This past Mother’s Day, she celebrated her 89th birthday and the 28th year of living alone in the family home.  And the week before her birthday, McKay was on a ladder trimming a tree next to her driveway.  She still drives a car, runs her own errands and more than occasionally pitches in with teenagers in a neighborhood cleanup.

“[Gerry] is a deeply spiritual person who knows the God who lives inside of her…and her neighbor.  She’s a steadfast family member and a loyal neighbor, who has a wry wit and a ready smile.” — Sr. Suzanne Homeyer

“I am pretty good at taking care of myself,” McKay says.  “Over the years I learned how to do a lot of things”  They include painting storm windows, shoveling snow, trimming trees, tending gardens nd hanging Christmas lights and watering grass.

In fact, she was watering grass when she first met the Visitation Sisters, several years after they moved into their house on Fremont Avenue..  Katherine Mullin noticed McKay in the yard and went over, said hello and invited her to meet the other Sisters.

Gerry McKay accepted the invitation and she’s been involved with the Sisters ever since, attending the monthly Monday Salesian meetings and becoming a Vis Companion (people who deepen their commitment to the Visitation Monastery, through, prayer, study and community service).

“I feel as though I’ve been adopted by the Sisters,” McKay says.  “They kind of adopted the whole neighborhood.  Everyone around here seems to know them and they seem to have a calming influence on those they meet.”

Gerry shares a thought at Salesian Monday Night

Calm, conscientious and confidant aptly describe Gerry McKay: the life she’s lived and the woman she’s become.  She grew up in a family with six siblings, five sisters and a brother.  “You better believe we raised him right,” she says, with a smile.  “He turned out to be a good and gentle man.”

And McKay turned out to be a very good daughter.  She attended Ascension Elementary School, Franklin Junior High and graduated from North High School. She got an award at North for never being late for class or missing a day of school.  She spent a year at the College of St. Catherine, planning to be a nurse.  Because her father was a contractor and frequently away, McKay had to quit and come home to help her mother, looking after her and the rest of the family.

She did it without resentments and found her role satisfying.  Over the years, she cared for her mother, two sisters and brother, who lost a battle to esophageal   cancer.  “I discovered I could be there when the going got tough,” she says.  “I always seemed to find the strength I needed.” She’s been the executor of three of their estates.

What McKay finds from the Sisters is another kind of strength.  “I feel spiritually enriched by them,” she says.  “They show me, and all the others they’re connected with, kindness, gentleness and an open heart.”

Sister Suzanne Homeyer says she draws inspiration from McKay: a single woman, growing old gracefully, taking care of her house, doing her own yard work, getting involved with her community and being unafraid.

“She is a deeply spiritual person,” says Homeyer, “who knows the God who lives inside of her…and her neighbor.  She’s a steadfast family member and a loyal neighbor, who has a wry wit and a ready smile.”

YouTube Channel: Tune into a video recording of the Interview with Gerry here.

********************************************************************************************************

* This is the eleventh in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

In the News: Vis Companion Linda Goynes Featured

We are thrilled to share this story of our good friend and neighbor,
Linda Goynes, who is featured in this month's Minnesota Good Age Magazine. 
Reprinted here with permission of the author.

Worth the wait

Linda Goynes, Visitation Companion

By Dave Nimmer

At a time when most senior citizens are thinking about selling their houses, downsizing to a townhome or heading to assisted living, 64-year-old Linda Goynes just bought her first house in December on Newton Avenue in North Minneapolis.

“I looked at three other houses,” she said, “but when I came to the one on Newton Avenue, I dropped to my knees. I did. I said, ‘Thank God. This is the house.’ For one reason or another, it just felt like home.”

The one-story house was built in 1918 and features two bedrooms, a dining room, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Goynes admitted the real selling point was the sun porch. She’s also got a washer, dryer, snow blower and room for a small garden.

 “I was at rock bottom at one time and here I am with a place to call my own.” – Linda Goynes

Being a happy homeowner was not in the cards for Goynes 25 years ago. She’d been divorced, battled a cocaine addiction and lapsed into a coma, following a heart attack. Doctors told her she’d die if she continued to use the drug. She said she made a bargain with God, promising she’d change her ways if she recovered.

And she did.

Challenges along the way

In 1996, she met her second husband. They moved into a house next door to the Sisters of the Visitation on Girard Avenue North. Goynes stayed clean but her husband was using drugs and, occasionally, selling them, too.

“I never knew what was going to happen. One day I’d be on the ground in handcuffs after a police raid,” she said. “And another we’d be robbed by somebody looking for a drug stash or the money. But I always had the Sisters to talk to, and I never felt alone.”

With help from the Visitation Sisters, Goynes ended up moving out of their rented house into an apartment in 2008; White died in 2015. Ironically, he also loved the Sisters, shoveling their walk., attending some of their neighborhood meetings and even putting up their Christmas tree every year. But he couldn’t stay away from heroin.

“Linda is one of the most courageous women I know,” said Sister Katherine Mullin. “She knew she had to leave him after all those years of his addiction. She made her decision, found an apartment and kept it together.”

Working and saving

Now Goynes has found a home and, along with it, peace of mind. “After my struggles and trials, I’m grateful to have a house at this time in my life,” she said.   “I was at rock bottom at one time and here I am with a place to call my own.”

She’s been saving for this place for several years. Goynes, who joined Ascension Catholic Church is 2010, has been working there as a pastor outreach assistant: organizing luncheons, setting up for funerals, arranging the food shelf, changing the candles and opening the church. In her spare time, she also helps the Visitation sisters in their monastery/home a few blocks away from the church.

“If ever we needed help with some event, celebration or some project, Linda has been there,” said Sister Mullin.

Gratitude Always

I’ve had the opportunity to see Goynes at work, for the sisters and the church. What I’ve noticed is her steady demeanor. She’s helpful, hopeful, purposeful, soulful and joyful. For almost 20 years, I’ve asked her how she is. Her answer is always the same. “I’m blessed,” she says.

She’s caused me to change my reply when someone asks how I am. My standard answer was one I took from my father: Always room for improvement, he’d say. For the past couple of years, when someone asks the question, I now reply, “It’s a good day.” It’s even a better day when I get to see Linda Goynes.

Salesian Monday Night: Divine Hospitality

Welcome to the Monastery!

Please join us for 2nd Salesian Monday night on May 8th. Our topic is Divine Hospitality, featuring Dave Nimmer and Sr. Mary Frances.

This year’s Salesian Spirituality series is entitled, “LIVING JESUS AS WE MOVE THROUGH OUR DAILY LIFE.” We invite you to join us for food and fellowship, input and reflection, before closing our evening with prayer.
SALESIAN SECOND MONDAY
Monday, May 8, 2017
6pm: Dinner
6:45pm-8pm: Presentation and PrayerCome for either part, as you are able!
Visitation Monastery — Girard House
1619 Girard Avenue North

Minneapolis, MN 55411

Questions? or to RSVP: Call Sr. Suzanne at 612-501-5096.

Bianca Franks: Salesian Leader and Friend

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Cemya, Bianca, and Javon
Photo Courtesy Bianca Franks

Bianca Franks was a girl of 10 when she first met the Visitation Sisters. She was helping out at the Cookie Cart and spending Wednesday evenings at the Fremont house with other children. One of those evenings turned into a gardening session and Franks, who says she’s no gardener, recalls Sister Karen (Mohan) gave her a slip from a spider plant.

To Franks’ amazement, the spider slip not only did not die, it flourished. That’s kind of a metaphor for Franks’ life since she came to Minneapolis with her mother, stepfather and three brothers when she was eight years old.

“…the biggest support [that I have received from the Sisters] was that I prayed with them at least once a day. And, over the years, they became my family.”

The 36-year-old single mother has two children, Javon, 13, and Cemya, 18, now a senior at Sage Academy in Brooklyn Park. Javon, who’s autistic, is in 8th grade at River Bend Education Center, an elementary school for children with special needs. Franks says proudly he was just elected his class vice-president.

Sr. Mary Frances and Salesian Leader, Bianca

When he was younger and just diagnosed, Javon had as many as 15 doctor, therapist and clinic appointments a week. Between the appointments and work to support the family, Franks lived a life that was harried, hurried and hectic.

“I really needed the Sisters then (2005),” Franks says. “Occasionally I’d go over for dinner But the biggest support was that I prayed with them at least once a day.   They became closely connected to me. And, over the years, they became my family.”

The Sister also became her mentor when they invited her to the Salesian Leaders Cohort in 2010. The group was to turn out community leaders, who could develop skills, techniques and self-confidence to help others in North Minneapolis. As the program continued into its second year, Franks says it was less about strategy and more about spirituality.

“What I learned,” she says, “is that I AM a leader, that I don’t have to achieve success at every turn to help others. I do believe I can help others, especially women and parents of special-need kids. I relate. I understand. And the training taught me how to listen, to actually hear what others are saying.”

Sister Karen Mohan says Franks impressed her with the ability to let go of what is not life-giving and to find another path that is. “She has dug deep,” says Mohan, “and surrounded herself with people who can give her a positive message. And she passes that on to others. Most of all, she is determined and she is honest.”

These days, Franks runs a support group for those parents: going to court with them if needed, holding their hands and helping them navigate the numbers and names of programs, agencies and groups that could provide help.

Franks and her teenagers live in a two-bedroom, subsidized apartment in south Minneapolis. She is presently working part-time through a temp agency – doing filing and typing – and would like a full-time job.

“I’m good at this work,” she says. “Recently Sister Mary Frances Reis gave me a list of names and addresses from notes. I typed ’em out in 15 minutes and she was amazed. Yep, I’m quick, I’m thorough and I’m organized.”

Her weekly budget, she says, is tight, although she gets a federal disability payment for Javon. And for her best work – at an overnight retreat at the St. Jane House – her reward involved no money.

“I shared my story, and my struggles, with others,” she says. “And I do know this woman, with whom I spent the most time, walked away feeling better, knowing her situation was not hopeless.”

Franks has a persona that is “out there,” accessible to all around her. She’s an extrovert, comfortable in a group of people and not shy about meeting strangers. Her daughter is more reserved and inclined to be somewhat shy and quiet. Sometimes, Franks has had trouble understanding her daughter’s demeanor. Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie had some helpful advice.

“Mary Margaret told me that Cemya was probably more of an introvert, an observer of what was going on and how people were acting,” Franks says. “She helped me understand those are strengths, truly gifts of those who are thoughtful and helpful. In some ways, my daughter is more like Mary Margaret.

Bianca Franks has always been open to good counsel and comments from others. She’s lived long enough to know that life can sometimes be a rock n’ roll affair. But she’s got a couple of qualities – quiet confidence and boundless energy – to keep her dancing.   She also knows the Visitation Sisters are always around when she needs a partner.

********************************************************************************************************

* This is the tenth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Our Friends: The Ochoa Family

By Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

The Ochoa Family

The Ochoa Family

When Maria and Pedro Ochoa came to Minneapolis in September, 1994 – having fled the turmoil, unrest and violence in their native Guatemala – they were seeking a better life for themselves and their family.

Since then, they’ve learned English, found a job, got an education, secured a driver’s license, bought a house and, oh yes, raised four children. One of them has a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine’s, one is enrolled at the University of Minnesota and two are attending Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, with plans to go to college.

“The Ochoa’s are people of integrity and goodness and faith. They are bringing up their children with values. They are the kind of people we want in the United States.” –S. Mary Virginia speaking to the Ochoa immigration attorney

That’s not bad for a family the U.S. government was seeking to deport in 2007 (Pedro, Maria and the oldest daughter, Marilyn). Not only did they not get deported, they became U.S. citizens, thanks to their dogged persistence and perseverance and a little help from the Visitation Sisters.

The family first met the Sisters at Ascension Church in 2003 and they sponsored the Ochoa girls to the Catholic Youth Camp on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor, MN.   Marilyn recalls they had a fine time and tried to repay the Sisters by doing chores around their house.

Pedro Jr., 14, remembers getting gifts from the Sisters, including Halloween costumes, swim togs and school supplies. “I think I always got my school supplies from the Sisters,” he says. “I don’t think we ever bought ‘em.” He’s now a freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret’s and his sister, Andrea, is a senior there, with plans to become a pediatrician.

Another daughter, Silvia, 20, is attending the University of Minnesota, majoring in economics. Marilyn, 24, has an undergraduate degree in theology and chemistry from St. Catherine’s University and now works at North Point Clinic. She’s planning to attend the University of Minnesota and enroll in the School of Pharmacy.

Pedro Ochoa, Sr.

Pedro Ochoa, Sr.

Pedro Sr. works for a medical company, Mar Cor, that makes filtration and purification systems, some of which are used in portable dialysis machines. For Pedro, this is the job he’s wanted after years of working for firms where he waxed floors, cleaned buildings and catered meals.

“I like the company,” he says, “because when you’re in the medical field there’s always business and customers. And you are helping sick people. I’ve been to a clinic to see those we are helping with our dialysis machines. I always try to do my best.”

Doing his best didn’t stop U.S. immigration authorities from starting deportation proceedings, contending the Ochoa’s no longer needed asylum in the U.S. and had no green cards.

The family hired a lawyer to make their case: They were working, paying taxes, obeying the laws, raising good children, being helpful neighbors and honoring their new country. The lawyer cost money and so would someone to translate Spanish documents into English and vice versa. Enter Sister Mary Virginia Schmidt.  

“She speaks and understands Spanish really good,” Ochoa says. “When we were threatened with deportation, she was right there by our side. All our documents had to be translated and that would have cost us a fortune. Sister Mary Virginia did that for nothing.”

She says the pleasure was hers.

“Their lawyer asked me why I was doing this,” says Schmidt. “I replied that the Ochoa’s are people of integrity and goodness and faith. They are bringing up their children with values. They are the kind of people we want in the United States.

“When they (authorities) dropped the deportation orders, Pedro and Maria took me to lunch and we celebrated. The day they became U.S. citizens, I wasn’t there. But we (the Sisters) celebrated with them later.”

Sr. Mary Virginia and Sr. Katherine on the day of Sylvia Ochoa's quiñcinera

Sr. Mary Virginia and Sr. Katherine on the day of Sylvia Ochoa’s quiñcinera

Schmidt says the family continues to be involved with the monastery. “Whatever the event, they are here. They help us in our monastery and show up for everything, including the Halloween costume giveaway.”

The Ochoa’s have lived on the Northside for 15years, well aware of the crime that sometimes plagues the neighborhood (Pedro’s car windshield has been smashed a half-dozen times). But they have no plans to leave.

“The transportation is good (bus). We have some fine neighbors,” says Ochoa. “And we’re following the advice we got from the Sisters: It doesn’t matter where you live. It’s how you live that matters.

His family is the living proof.

***********************************************************************************************************

* This is the ninth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Sondra Samuels: Northside Pride and Hope

Sondra Samuels, CEO NAZ

Sondra Samuels, CEO Northside Achievement Zone

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Sondra Samuels is not a shrinking violet who wilts under pressure or withers from conflict or criticism.

That’s part of the territory when you’re the CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a partnership of community organizations and schools with a jaw-tightening task:  to prepare 2,300 children in a 18 by 13-block square of North Minneapolis to graduate from high school and go on to college.

“Sondra is an astute educator, a caring mom and wife and community advocate. She is a doer.  She brings pride to the Northside and our achievements on behalf of future generations.” Sr. Suzanne

If this job isn’t enough, add in her husband’s.  Don Samuels was the 5th ward councilman and is now a member of the Minneapolis School Board.  Sometimes the pace can be relentless, the criticism approaches nastiness and the goals can appear hopeless.

These are times when Samuels, the girl who grew up in Newark, appreciates the Sisters who live in Minneapolis. They share a belief in society where character, conscience and courage replace color, class and creed to measure a person’s worth.

“I knew these Sisters were different.  When I asked them what their day was like, they told me when the doorbell rings, ‘We know it’s Jesus at the door.’  And they really mean it.” — Sondra

Samuels remembers her first meeting with the Sisters, at a time when she and Don were grieving yet another gunshot death of a Northside teenager and confronting what they felt was unfair criticism from community loudmouths.

Click to hear Ms. Samuels interviewed by Dave Nimmer

Click to hear Ms. Samuels interviewed by Dave Nimmer

“I remember Sister Suzanne (Homeyer) met me at the door,” Samuels said.  “I fell in with a limp body and I think I shed a bucket of tears.  We went into the Chapel.  We prayed.  And I felt comforted and embraced when I left that house.”

Homeyer remembers that day, too.  “She particularly asked for prayers for her husband and neighborhood concerns, too,” she said.  “There were tears, sharing, laughter, tissues and hugs.  It was the way we meet so many of our neighbors and we both kept our promises.  Sondra has come back to visit with, and without, her family.”

Kind of amazing for someone who isn’t even Catholic.

“That doesn’t matter,” Samuels said. “I knew these Sisters were different.  When I asked them what their day was like, they told me when the doorbell rings, ‘We know it’s Jesus at the door.’  And they really mean it.”

The Sisters feel their support of Samuels is being repaid in full by the work she is is doing in their backyard through NAZ, which got its start with a $26 million federal grant over five years.  That funding is gone now and Samuels is working to raise $11 million a year from the coffers of the state, the city and corporate and private charities.

Part of her pitch she already outlined in an Op-Ed column published in June in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“We also recognized that schools can’t do it alone so we surround students with a team that provides everything from extra academic opportunities, parent education and early childhood services to behavioral health counseling, housing and career support.  In partner schools where the supports are most layered for NAZ students, they are doing significantly better than their peers in reading.”

sondraSamuels gets animated and excited when she describes a recent 12-week program for parents on the resources, skills, tools and techniques they’ll need to better raise their infant children.  “We’re getting Dads to show up for this course,” she said, “and one of the women talked about learning that she doesn’t have to be ‘a screaming mother,’ yelling at her child.”

Samuels is finely attuned to the complexity of life for minorities in America, dealing with the realities of discrimination and prejudice while avoiding the passiveness and pessimism that comes from playing “the victim” role.

“I think Black Lives Matter, and the protests, cause me to say, ’They finally see us.’ They know we’re here,” Samuels said.  “And our problems are the problems of all poor people and we do have to be working for all people.

”But to the people of color, I say, ‘They aren’t coming to save us.  We determine how we’ll do.  I am not bent over.  We can help each other but you’ve got to show up and do your part.”

Will Wallace, who knows the Sisters and Samuels, uses the same message in his work with Emerge, trying to prod young brothers (and sisters) off the streets, out of gangs, into school and onto jobs.  “Sondra Samuels,” he said, “is the real deal.  She’s got the best interests of the Northside young people in her heart.”

The Sisters echo that sentiment, having watched Samuels in action – in good times and bad.   “Sondra is an astute educator, a caring mom and wife and community advocate,” Sister Homeyer said.  “She is a doer.  She brings pride to the Northside and our achievements on behalf of future generations.”

Samuels and the Sisters: a neighborhood partnership that gives hope to that future.

 

* This is the eighth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Will Wallace

Will Wallace and Dave Nimmer

Will Wallace and Dave Nimmer

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

A NOTE OF APPECIATION: Dave Nimmer has traveled with us the 27 year journey of the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. His unconditional love and presence to our community from Day #1 moved us to honor him with our Cross of Affiliation. No one knows more profoundly than Dave the essence of the relationships we have nurtured and been nurtured by over the years. We so appreciate that in his retirement years, he continues to share his considerable literary gifts with us!  

                           Welcome to Blog # 7! Sr. Mary Frances and the Visitation Sisters of North Minneapolis

The relationship between Will Wallace and the Sisters of the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis is the stuff of a movie script: Former gang member meets up with a group of nuns and over the years they form a friendship, develop a bond and share a dream.

They’ve known each other for 15 years and, in that time, the Sisters have helped Will get a house, support his family, survive the setbacks, burnish his skills and nurture his soul. And Wallace has been there for the Sisters, talking to their supporters, distributing their holiday gifts and even providing bodies to shovel their walk.

 “No one does a better job in talking with [the Visitation Students] about the realities of life over here,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis.   “He can be spellbinding. He tells the truth and talks from his heart. He is not afraid to cry.”

It’s no exaggeration to call the relationship one based on trust, respect and, yes, love. “I do love the Sisters,” Wallace says.   “I mean, they talk about being respectful, being peaceful, being useful. That’s what they show me since the very beginning. When I’ve needed ‘em, they’ve been there.”

It was Christmas Day a few years ago when he needed comfort and consolation after his brother was shot and killed in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He went to the Sisters early in the morning, filled with grief and stoked with rage.   He lay on the floor, shed his tears, told the story and left with a little peace.

Wallace, a former Gangster Disciple who caught a break from a judge, got a high school degree from an alternative school and managed two years at The University of St. Thomas before succumbing to the pressures of a full-time job and four courses a semester.

Vis Seniors with some of our northside friends from Emerge and From Death to Life

Vis Seniors with some of our northside friends from Emerge and From Death to Life

The Sisters have celebrated his perseverance and invited him to talk with seniors from Visitation High School who spend a week with them, an immersion experience in life on the Northside. “No one does a better job in talking with them about the realities of life over here,” says Sister Mary Frances Reis.   “He can be spellbinding. He tells the truth and talks from his heart. He is not afraid to cry.”

“I do love the Sisters,” Wallace says.   “I mean, they talk about being respectful, being peaceful, being useful. That’s what they show me since the very beginning. When I’ve needed ‘em, they’ve been there.”

Will’s ability to relate to others was obvious at The City, where he got his high school diploma and then worked, starting as a daycare supervisor. “To everyone’s surprise,” wrote Tom Helgeson, a friend and supervisor, “Will thrived as a daycare employee. Later he was hired as the full-time supervisor of The City’s job training program.. Will is doing an outstanding job.”

Those remarks helped Wallace get into the University of St. Thomas and two years there helped him land a job with Emerge, a program reaching out to gang members, offering them training and helping them find jobs – and stay with those jobs. Will Wallace was available for “his guys” to talk with 24/7. His cell phone was always busy.

And it still is, in his job with GAP (Guadalupe Alternative Programs) working with young bothers in the Minneapolis Public Schools, grades one through eight. In effect, Wallace is a mentor, a (surrogate) father, a confessor and a counselor. His goal is to keep them in school, into their classes and out of trouble.

One of the messages is straight from his interaction with the Sisters (and their patron saint Francis de Sales). “’Nothing from violence. Do everything through love. I tell them. I really do. It’s what the Sisters preach and what I try to practice. Look, I know first-hand what violence does and how it can take families apart. I am not afraid to offer love – and a little patience and understanding.”

Wallace has developed that “softer side” with his wife, children and grandchildren. He can lay down the law, all right, but he can also ease up on the judgment. He figures he’s got the tools to be a new-generation leader in North Minneapolis and one day run his own program. The Sisters helped nurture that dream.

Will Wallace and Sr. Mary Frances celebrate the Northside Leadership Pilot Program

Will Wallace and Sr. Mary Frances celebrate the Northside Leadership Pilot Program

As long as he’s dreaming, Will would love to have his own place on a small lake where he can kick back and simply go fishing. He’s an artist with a rod and reel and something of a “fish whisperer” in a boat: “C’mon girl, come to Papa.” On a lake he exchanges problems and quarrels for peace and quiet.

He’d like to pass some of that on to his young charges in school, whose lives are often chaotic and contentious. Wallace tells them that life can be better – and bigger – if they can see a little further down the track.

“A lot of these kids have only known the north neighborhood,” Wallace says. “They haven’t been across the river, where Lake Street turns into Marshall Avenue. They’ve never seen a private college. They’ve never been able to sit in a boat on a quiet summer day and fish crappies, tell stories and laugh at each other.”

Will Wallace HAS crossed the river to attend a private college. While he hasn’t discovered the Promised Land, he’s blazed a promising path for others to follow.

 

* This is the seventh in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS! 

Our Friend: Wazeer Brown

Meet Wazeer Brown

Meet Wazeer Brown

by Dave Nimmer, Guest Blogger

Wazeer Brown, and his brother Emmanuel, are the first youngsters the Visitation Sisters “met” after they decided to locate their monastery in North Minneapolis in 1989.

The two boys, about three and four years old, were standing on the street corner at 16th and Fremont as the Sisters were driving by.  “Here are these two kids waving at us like crazy,” recalls Mary Frances Reis.  “They had a big smile on their faces.  We couldn’t help but noticing their pure joy and excitement.”

In fact, the brothers got so close to the Sisters they had to start a special time – Windsock –  for neighborhood children to come by the Fremont house.  And come they did – for time, treats and attention.

“The Windsock time was really good for me,” Brown recalls.  “It was different from the rest of my life.  It was cheerful and stress free.  I didn’t find that at home or on the streets.  The Sisters were just there for me and brought peace into my life.”

Wazeer and Emmanuel brought their presence into the sisters’ lives, sometimes sitting on the retaining wall in front of the Fremont house.  When they felt it was needed, they’d offer a little advice to  prospective visitors:  “You can’t go in now because the Sisters are prayin’.”

“I’d tell all who wanted to better themselves and change their lives,” he says, “they ought to get to know these women (the Sisters).  They shaped who I am as a person, the person I wanted to be.  I think they kind of put the spirit of the Lord in my heart.” –Wazeer

The Sisters have prayed for Wazeer since those Windsock days two decades ago. Over those years, they’ve read to him, found a mentor for him, promoted a scholarship for him and stood by him through the speed bumps, potholes and sharp curves along his way.

Today, at the age of 29, Wazeer is studying to get his GED diploma, helping raise his two daughters, Destiny, 9 and Serenity,5, holding a full-time job at Walmart and staying in touch with the friends who helped him get this far, including the Sisters.

“What I’m really impressed with,” says Mary Margaret McKenzie, “is how much energy and enthusiasm he’s putting into getting that GED.  A while back, he told me, ‘I’m getting fractions.’  He is actually into his mathematics and, yes, he’s understanding fractions for the first time.  I think that is remarkable.”

McKenzie says she remembers years ago when she helped him and Emmanuel work on a science project to make and inflate a hot-air balloon.  “I don’t recall exactly how that turned out but I do recall thinking that Wazeer was really smart.  You only have to show him or tell him once, and he gets it.”

He “got it” about the importance of going back to school, this time at the Adult Education Center in Minneapolis.  “I think I just realized it’s time,” Brown says.  “My mind is ready for it.”  Once he gets the GED, Brown says he might think about going to a two-year or community college, to help him land a job that makes him joyful and useful.

He already knows how to work hard, according to Jeff Pearson, who, along with his wife Maryann, has been long-time friend and supporter of the Sisters.  They enlisted Pearson to be kind of a mentor/father figure for Wazeer.

“I used to have him come over to my house on Saturday mornings and we’d work in the yard,” says Pearson.   “He hadn’t done a lot of yard work but, I tell you what, he worked hard.  You know, I feel I have a life-long friendship with him.”

The Sisters feel the same way and they haven’t hesitated to call on him to do a favor or two, like talking to a group of seniors at Visitation High School who are spending a week at the monastery, getting immersed in life on the North Side.

“He got up in front of these young women,” says Mary Margaret, “and talked confidently about the value of being grounded when they go away from home to college.  His talk, and his message, were really quite wonderful.”

Wazeer got up in front of another group at his grandmother’s funeral, to talk about who she was, what she did and how she lived.  He has developed this kind of presence in his life and the Sisters have been there to nurture it and, now, to feel it.

Wazaeer in Arabic means “minister.”  Brown is not given to preaching but he’s accumulated enough wisdom for a homily: Change is inevitable.  Get used to it.  Being positive is always a key.  Keep busy in life and work on being a better “you.”  And one more thing.

“I’d tell all who wanted to better themselves and change their lives,” he says, “they ought to get to know these women (the Sisters).  They shaped who I am as a person, the person I wanted to be.  I think they kind of put the spirit of the Lord in my heart.”

 

* This is the sixth in a series of profiles by journalist Dave Nimmer featuring Visitation 
Companions and northside neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of our dear friends -- 
as they reflect the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us
 in our ministry of mutuality. 
LIVE + JESUS!