Catholic News Agency Carmelite sisters serve women with disabilities in new home By Mary Farrow (Denver Newsroom, Oct 5, 2020 / 03:01 am MT) (CNA).-

When asked what life is like in a new home for women with intellectual disabilities, run by the Carmelite sisters in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Sr. M. Rose Therese laughs affectionately.

“To quote Forrest Gump,” she said, “‘Life is like a box of chocolates. Every day – you never know what you’re going to get!’”

“They give us so much fun and inspire us every day,” Sr. Rose Therese said.

For 100 years, the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus in the Milwaukee suburb ran a home for boys that first served as an orphanage, and then as a residential treatment program for juveniles. After a difficult past 5 years, with the boys’ needs surpassing what the sisters could meet, the sisters decided to chart a new mission for the space.

After a meeting with their neighbors and local officials, Sr. Rose Teresa said they realized they were well-positioned to serve adult women with special needs.

The old boy’s home was demolished, and last fall, the sisters opened a home for women with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The home is open to women ages 21 and up, and offers life skills classes on things like budgeting and sewing, as well as science classes, faith formation classes, and Zumba or other fitness activities. There’s also a daily rosary and rest time in the schedule, as well as weekend activities and night classes for the women who work outside the home during business hours.

These classes and activities provide structure, Sr. Rose Terese said, but the women are free to choose what they do or do not want to do.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the women also had the option of attending daily Mass at the sister’s convent. Because of social distancing restrictions, that isn’t an option right now, Sr. Rose Therese said, but they are hoping to have them back as soon as possible.

The women’s favorite classes are the science classes, she said.

“They like to do the experiments. For the geography classes, they like to go to different places.”

The past year has been a difficult one to navigate, given everything that has happened with the coronavirus pandemic, Sr. Rose Therese added. The home has spots for 15 women, and only 5 of them are currently filled. Three women are on a waiting list, and will join the home once their families believe it is safe.

Sr. Rose Therese said the sisters have been mentored by another local ministry that has been serving people with intellectual disabilities for many years.

“Every day we learn something new, as each of them is different and each of them has very specific needs and disabilities,” she said of the residents. “We are here to help with whatever they need.”

She said the sisters are happy to be able to offer their residents a sense of independent living, especially after the age of 21, when many other services for people with intellectual disabilities end. Many of the sisters help out with the apostolate during the day, and one sister is always staying on campus overnight.

These women come from good families, Sr. Rose Therese added, who would otherwise worry what would happen to these women once their families are gone.

Dianne Schellinger, whose sister Janis is a resident at the home, said she found out about the home from a feature about the mission on local T.V.

“If anything happened to any of us we knew she would be extremely safe,” Dianne told WTMJ-TV Milwaukee.

“Just being with them, learning more about them, they bring us so much joy,” Sr. Rose Therese said. Resident Becca Fazio, 25, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she likes the sewing classes offered, and she also likes to play Jenga and spend time with her friends.

“I also like that I get to hang out with the sisters and hang out with my friends here,” Fazio said. The sisters are planning to open up the classrooms and fitness center at the home to men as well as women, for faith formation classes and as a fitness center, once coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

Carmelite Sisters in Wauwatosa look back on a year serving women with disabilities. By Evan Casey; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

For 100 years, the Carmelite Home for Boys in Wauwatosa functioned as an orphanage and then a residential treatment facility for juvenile offenders from Milwaukee and other nearby communities.

But in 2019, the sisters changed course.

They’re now nearing the one-year mark of functioning as a home for women with  intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We thought, we nuns, we are the simplest people in the world,” said Sister Mary Brigid. “But these ladies teach us a lot. They teach us humility and simplicity. Sometimes we can make things in life so complicated, but their lives are just so simple.”

In recent years, the sisters said several problems with some of the juveniles the home served led them to look for a new mission.

They demolished the old home for boys and built a $4 million complex with 15 living units for women. The Carmelite Ministry of St. Teresa, 1215 Dewey Ave., Wawautosa,  then began welcoming the women in October 2019.

‘A lot of joy’
Becca Fazio moved into The Carmelite Ministry of St. Teresa nine months ago. She said she loves talking and hanging out with her friends.
The women participate in a variety of activities throughout the day, including science class, music time, sewing class and a Zumba class.

Becca Fazio, 25, said her favorite activity of the day is sewing class. She also likes playing Jenga and talking with her friends.

“I also like that I get to hang out with the sisters and hang out with my friends here,” Fazio said.

Fazio moved into the facility in January from Cedarburg. Her parents visit frequently. But Fazio said she loves the independence of living alone.

Another of her favorite activities is cleaning her room and doing her own laundry.

“It’s pretty good being independent because it gets me to actually be able to do stuff,” she said.

To make it all happen, the sisters share roles and wear many different hats.

Sister Mary Brigid handles the classes and activities. She also helps with the maintenance of the facility and sleeps in the same building as the women.

Sister Miriam Teresa is in charge of the faith component of the ministry, as well as fitness classes and housekeeping.

Sister Rose Therese is the cook, and also helps with finances and fundraising.

Sister Mary Brigid teaches a class to the five women who live in the home.
Sister Rose Therese said the day is structured for the women, but they can also choose what to do or not do. Every day is different. The sisters said they are still learning from the women on a daily basis.

One of the main lessons they’re learning: Don’t take life too seriously.

“It made me realize those things that I take for granted, and I made things complicated, but it made me realize that life can be simple,” said Sister Rose Therese.

The women bring her “a lot of joy,” she added.

“Sometimes we make life so complicated, but they inspire us,” she said.

Sister Mary Brigid added that the goal of the home is to teach the women real-life skills.

The sisters said they focus on skills for their work life, social life, creative expression and  spiritual growth.

“Nobody is telling them what to do, because here, they actually are free, but if they need something or if there’s a skill that needs to be worked on, we help them,” said Sister Mary Brigid.

“Everyone is so nice and kind, and they want to get to know you better and talk with you, and once they get to know you better, and you get to know them better, they’re awesome and good to be around,” she said.

Still open
Currently, 10 of the 15 units are still open. Three women are waiting to move in because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We didn’t expect COVID … nobody did,” Sister Rose Therese said.

In the spring, however, they’re planning to open a fitness center for both men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There will be a fee for use of the center, but it’ll be open to the public.

The sisters are also still seeking donations for costs related to the new building.

Learn more about how to donate at bit.ly/carmelitesisterstosa

Evan Casey can be reached at 414-403-4391 or evan.casey@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @ecaseymedia.