20 Years in the Neighborhood

By Liz Allen

They talked. They walked. They listened. They empathized. Then they acted to help Erie residents revitalize our city — first in one neighborhood, now in another.

This year, as the Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, we tell the stories of the women whose vision and commitment sparked visible change in some of Erie’s oldest neighborhoods,  spanning an area roughly bounded by 12th and 26th  Streets, from Cranberry Street to East Avenue.

You will hear the sisters describe the origins of the SSJNN. You will see how their work in these historic yet oft-neglected neighborhoods continues the mission that the Sisters of St. Joseph have followed since their founding in France.

Due to the COVID-19 health measures, we have not been able to celebrate this 20-year landmark in splashy fashion.

But as you learn about the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, we invite you to visit our neighborhoods.

Start your tour at Three Sisters Park in the 400 block of West 19th Street, named for three women religious whose dedication carried the SSJNN from brainstorm to reality: Sister Mary Herrmann, Sister Phyllis Hilbert and the late Sister Carol Wilcox. Notice the locomotive artifacts incorporated into the park’s design. That’s a nod to neighborhood’s history. Railroad tracks used to carry freight trains past the humble houses on West 19th Street; Heisler locomotives were built a few blocks to the north on West 16th street, in the same building now occupied by plastics manufacturer Berry Global.

Take a social distance walk in Little Italy. Begin at the SSJNN office at 425 W. 18th Street. Go east or west to visit the numbered streets; turn up and down the intersecting streets. Most street names will be familiar but some will surprise you. Do you know where Huron Street is? Or Mobile Avenue?

Do the same in SSJNN’s target  neighborhoods on the east side of the City. Start at the office at 436 East 26th Street and wend your way up and down the tree-shaded streets that branch off the main thoroughfare. “This neighborhood has many jewels left,” said Margarita Dangel, manager of the SSJNN activities for this area. “Houses that are beautifully kept, people who care day-in and day-out, a neighbor who walks around and picks up garbage every day,” she said.

On East 26th Street, follow the signs marking safe routes to school, to help children and their caregivers on their way to McKinley Elementary School.

As you walk, notice the seven community gardens in bloom, the  urban farm in production and all of the inviting green spaces.

Admire the murals depicting the immigrants who flocked to these neighborhoods a century ago.

You can follow this link to visit a Google map providing the locations for all these and more.

Pay a visit to Poetry Park, between Ash and Reed on East 22nd streets; it’s a gift to the neighborhood from the Benedictine Sisters. See if you can spot the homes with lines of poetry dancing up and down their front steps, a project of Erie Arts & Culture.

Study the craftsmanship of the schools, churches and businesses that the first immigrants founded. Discover how newcomers have created their own houses of worship and anchor institutions, repurposing some of those same buildings.

Visit the Little Italy Farmers Market, 331 W. 18th St., on Mondays from 3 to 6 p.m., June through September

For Small Business Saturday in November 2019, the SSJ Neighborhood Network lined up 29 participating merchants, but don’t wait until the holidays to patronize a neighborhood business. Pop into a store — wearing your mask, of course. You’ll find all kinds of treats and treasures, including Italian and other ethnic specialties at Larry’s Central Market, 1626 Sassafras St., and fresh coffee and homemade pepperoni balls at Serafin’s Market, Erie’s oldest grocery store, at the corner of East 24th and Ash streets.

Keep your eyes open and your ears attuned and you’ll learn about the Erie residents who are bringing arts-oriented businesses to these neighborhoods – The “Shop at 19th and Chestnut,” artist incubator  started by the McCreary family, including the metal and wood-working “Both Studio” and others, the photography studio planned for  a warehouse on Huron Street, and the “Grounded Print” papermaking studio at Angelo’s Roofing on Cherry Street.  “There’s some momentum and so much potential,” said Heather May Caspar, executive director of the SSJNN, about the influx of artists to the neighborhood.

As you discover what’s new, fresh and inviting in our neighborhoods, please accompany us on our trip back in time to see how we got here. You can read small bits of this story at a time, skip around from section to section, or read the whole narrative. No matter which way you decide to dip into our story, we are delighted to have you be part of it, as our story continues to unfold.

TALKING THROUGH AN IDEA

The seed of the idea for the Neighborhood Network can be traced to the 1980s, according to Sister Catherine Manning, retired president and chief executive officer for Saint Vincent Hospital. That was when Saint Vincent Health System created the South Erie Hillside Association. The goal was to improve Census Tract 19, bounded by Sassafras, Myrtle, West 26th and West 24th Streets, where drug use and prostitution had started to encroach on the area close to the hospital, she recalled.

At the same time, the Sisters of St. Joseph expressed interest in improving the City of Erie with an unnamed “neighborhood network.”  Sister Mary Herrmann and Sister Mary Fromknecht held organizational meetings at the Sisters of St. Joseph Community Living Center along with Denis O’Brien, a hospital executive from Saint Vincent Health Systems, according to Sister Catherine.

Saint Vincent Health System also asked John Olsen, a consultant who had worked with Ben Wiley, executive director of the Greater Erie Community Action Committee, to determine the area most in need of help in Census Tract 19, Sister Catherine said.

After the north part of Census Tract 19 was targeted for improvement, the Saint Vincent Health Systems Board approved the plan and worked with the Sisters of St. Joseph to determine the geographical boundaries of the target area.

Sister Mary Herrmann and Sister Carol Wilcox accepted this work as their full-time ministry.

Sister Mary Fromknecht, who was part of the Sisters of St. Joseph leadership team at the time the Neighborhood Network was founded, said that the original vision remains the same: “To meet the needs of the era and the area.”

Sister Claire Marie Beichner, who also served in leadership and on the SSJNN board, said that patience and perseverance action have been key to the Neighborhood Network’s success. “One step at a time, one person at a time, along with good leadership and staff since its inception has led to 20 years of SSJNN being a powerful model of what can be done with coordinated efforts and much spirit,” she said.

Sister Ricarda Vincent joined the SSJ leadership team after Sister Mary Fromknecht’s term ended. “She’s a mover and a shaker,” Sister Ricarda said about Sister Mary Fromknecht, citing her dedication in shepherding the neighborhood network from concept to reality and referring to Sister Mary’s other social ministry work.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph, ministering to the needs of others often means a call for hands-on contributions from all in the SSJ community. Sister Jean Marie Baptiste DiLuzio, now a volunteer in the SSJ Development Office, was working full-time for the Marriage Tribunal in the Catholic Diocese of Erie when she joined the first board for the Neighborhood Network. “I scrubbed toilets when we were moving into the new building,” Sister Jean Marie said with a chuckle.

The sisters also looked outward for partners, enlisting donors and advisors known for their philanthropy and leadership, while staying true to their commitment to listen and learn from those who know the neighborhoods best – the people who live there.

“The whole sense was to go into the neighborhood, always trying to find leadership within the community, not to duplicate services,” said Sister Ricarda. “It began with that kind of mission, to help the neighborhood grow its own gifts and leadership,” she said. “I think we have been faithful to the mission, in terms of building on what was there.”

WALKING THE WALK

After the organizational meetings, the next step was to literally step out into the neighborhood to assess the needs.

Sister Mary Herrmann and Sister Carol Wilcox vowed to interview each neighbor. The late Sister Christine Quirk volunteered to go door to door to talk to residents who wanted to learn English.

Bob Guthrie began his job as plant manager at Berry Global Plastics, on West 16th Street in Little Italy, about the same time that the sisters started their work. “When I got here, the neighborhood was not great,” he said. “These two women were just going through the neighborhood and started knocking on doors and saying, ‘What do you need to get better?’” he recalled. “They have helped the neighborhood tremendously.”

Fencing and barbed wire surrounded the low-slung building housing Berry Global. The sisters gently suggested that perhaps those barriers could come down. Today, the manufacturing plant, which makes plastic lids for juice drinks, bottled water, mayonnaise jars, motor oil and other products, is immaculately landscaped and you might see youngsters playing ball on the front lawn.

“You don’t improve a neighborhood by fighting it,” Guthrie said. Rather, working together is the key. Berry Global is the host site for lunch time meetings for the Historic Little Italy Business Association, of which the SSJNN is a part.

Sister Mary Herrmann had a slight setback before her door-to-door interviews could start.  “Sister Carol Wilcox and I walked door to door in Little Italy, but that was only after I recuperated from breaking my arm while I was roller skating!” she said with a laugh.

But once the sisters got moving, “We were very well received,” said Sister Mary. “We found out that families needed nutritional support, so we started a food program. We had a very generous offer from Father Richard Stack at St. Paul Parish and started the soup kitchen there, which serves meals every Monday. We put a notice in the Sunday bulletin. By Tuesday morning we had 92 volunteers. Some of the original volunteers, like Ron DiVecchio and Joe Salvia are still there.” They are joined by a small army of more than 400 volunteers who help SSJNN carry out their various programs today.

SETTLING IN

Sister Catherine Manning continued the story. “During the needs’ assessment period, the desire to have a physical presence in the neighborhood was a priority. Denis O’Brien visited most available properties, from storefronts to old bakeries to vacant land. During this search, a condominium office in the Professional Building, 1611 Peach Street, was gifted to the Sisters of St. Joseph. Saint Vincent helped to remodel the condo so the needs and privacy concerns of the neighbors could be met. In a matter of months, the condo unit was transformed into a very attractive office space,” she said.

There was only one problem. “Unlike the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’ where the line ‘Build it and they will come’ was made famous, when we built our condo office, no one came! We learned that four-lane wide Peach Street was just too far or too threatening for the neighbors to visit,” Sister Catherine said.

Mr. O’Brien searched for a more central location. Everyone was delighted when 425 W. 18th Street, a two-and-a-half unit flat in the center of Little Italy, became available.

“Saint Vincent helped to connect the two units into one large unit and to update the interior and exterior building infrastructure. The use of this building and the dedication of workers created the nucleus of the growth and success of the SSJNN,” Sister Catherine said.

“Once the right location was ready, the work of the Sisters continued at a rapid pace”, Sister Catherine said.

LEARNING CAN BE FUN

During conversations with neighbors, the sisters had learned about the issue of food insecurity in Little Italy. In addition to starting the soup kitchen at St. Paul’s, they decided to teach parents and children how to cook. But that venture led to another eye-opener.

“We were teaching the families to cook but seventh- and eighth-graders couldn’t read a recipe,” said Sister Mary Herrmann. “Carol was a reading specialist and had experience in pastoral care. She would bring a child in to be tested and if the child was two grades below, we enlisted all kinds of volunteer teachers to help. Some tutors have been volunteering for more than a decade.”

Sister Mary remembered a particularly heart-wrenching moment. “One of the little girls did not know her alphabet and that spring, she failed first grade. She always walked with her head down. When she got her report card the following fall and got good grades, she said, “Sister Mary, I’m not stupid anymore!” I thought I was going to cry.”

The sisters also decided they wanted to do something enjoyable for neighbors and came up with “Timeout for Moms,” which met each week, led by Sister Carol Wilcox. . The moms could get haircuts from a beautician, treat themselves to manicures or plant flower gardens. Two caseworkers from Catholic Charities were available to meet with the women.

“We also started looking at the neighborhood itself, the poor housing, the rental situations. We hired Wally Brown as our Housing and Neighborhood Coordinator. We planted trees all along 18th Street. There was a lot of cleaning up, repairing of sidewalks,” said Sister Mary Herrmann.

Sister Catherine described the physical changes in the neighborhood“The murals, the benches, the bike rack, the gardens all give a little bit of color. One of the biggest needs was for better lighting and as you go east, you see the new light posts. No wonder there was so much crime; it was so dark.

There were other pragmatic changes, such as making sure each household had a smoke detector, she said.

“We arranged to take down a lot of really dilapidated housing,” said Sister Mary Herrmann. “We rented homes out at a very low cost and put the money into escrow so they could save to buy a house and we were also providing mentors so they would be prepared for homeownership.”

Sister Phyllis Hilbert works on the Genesis Housing Program. “We focus on refugees and mentoring them into home ownership,” she said. The refugee families resemble the early Italian immigrants who settled in Little Italy. “They are very family-oriented. Housing, education is a priority. They work to help one another,” she said.

And like those early immigrants who built Erie’s original neighborhoods, former refugees who become homeowners sometimes move to new neighborhoods, further enriching greater Erie. The first refugee family to buy a home in Little Italy bought their next home in Millcreek Township – for $300,000, said Sister Phyllis.

In 2015, the SSJNN expanded to enrich new neighborhoods as well, opening a second office location near Parade on East 26th Street. A neighborhood dear to many Sisters who grew up there, St. Mary’s “East” nursing home is another SSJ anchor in this corner of the city.

ROOTED IN CHANGE

Gardens contribute to the vitality of all the neighborhoods served by SSJNN

“Our first garden was planted next to a big wall. I wanted something pretty for the mural art, and we ended up with a psychedelic design of blue, pink and yellow,” said Sister Mary Herrmann. A new mural was designed to complement the space, providing a sense of the garden flowing from the landscaped scenery. “Some gardens are plots for residents to use. Others are harvested to help stock our food pantry,” she said.

Rose Graham, who succeeded Sister Mary Herrmann as director of the SSJNN in 2006, explained how the garden idea has seeded other initiatives.

Neighborhood tax credits pay for the opportunity for people to use food stamps to double their buying power at the weekly, Little Italy Farmers Market, she said. “If you swipe your EBT card for $10,  you get to spend $20,” she said.

Peace by Piece Farm became the first partner in the Farmers Market, which operated in a lot next to St Paul’s Catholic Church, beginning in 2012.  Then in 2017 the market moved to the 300 block of West 18th Street, where the setting includes interactive art to delight the eye and ear.

“We used to call that property the Field of Dreams,” said Rose. “We talked about putting a farmers market there, in the middle of a poverty-stricken neighborhood, one that accepted food stamps,” she said.

This summer, growers from all over the region participate in the weekly Farmers Market. But the market bears fruit of another SSJNN  idea. “What if we were to teach kids to farm and sell the produce?” Rose said. Today, shoppers can find greens, vegetables and flowers for sale at the stand run by teens from the neighborhood.

THE MISSION CONTINUES

When Heather May Caspar succeeded Rose Graham as SSJNN executive director in 2016, she knew that she was joining forces with a group that has a centuries-long record of serving those in need.

When a handful of women founded the Sisters of St. Joseph in 17th century France, they did so “to respond to the things happening at the time – extreme poverty and need,” Heather said. In the Catholic Diocese of Erie, Mother Agnes Spencer and the Sisters of St. Joseph established St. Joseph Hospital (later Spencer Hospital) in Meadville in 1870 and St. Vincent Hospital in Erie in 1874 to minister to those with emergency health needs, Heather said.

Today, the SSJNN still meets emergency needs, even during the pandemic. “We’ve always had walk-ins for emergency food,” said Heather. The SSJNN also responds to urgent requests for items such as diapers and personal hygiene products and offers help when someone is left homeless or a family member is experiencing a mental health crisis. To provide referrals for shelter or counseling, Sister Phyllis consults her extensive database of contacts to match them with the right people and services.

The shutdown in March meant that employees and volunteers could not be in the building, but the SSJNN never stopped responding to emergencies. “We have never stopped answering calls for need, with a staff member taking those phone calls every day. While the offices are still closed to the public, staff have since returned to both  offices,” Heather said.

GOOD AND HOLY

The Neighborhood Network’s mission goes beyond meeting basic needs. The SSJNN other commitments are to neighborhood revitalization and social enterprise. And dare we say there is saintliness at work, too?

Rose Graham, the former director, became an associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph thanks to the late Sister Carol Wilcox, her mentor and the woman she calls the “Mother Teresa of Little Italy.”

“She really was this quiet, mild, wonderful human being who created these relationships with people and never judged them,” Rose said.

Sister Peggy O’Brien counts herself blessed to call the late Sister Carol her best friend. “She was so devoted; I can’t even begin to tell you. She would walk the streets just to introduce herself and meet the people.”

Sister Peggy described Sister Carol, a Bradford native, as a “kind, quiet person” who had taught “children who had everything” at various Catholic schools. She viewed her ministry at the SSJNN as a chance to work with children who didn’t have those advantages.

Rose recalls the moment when she realized that true transformation was taking place in Little Italy. “I remember standing at the back of the alley (between West 18th and West 19th streets), about a month after I went to work there. A little girl came running down the alley to our building.” The child called out, “It’s OK. I’m going to play at Sister Carol’s house.’ I thought, ‘They have arrived. They’re coming for tutoring and reading and math and she considered that playing at St. Carol’s house. That is exactly what Erie needs. Erie needs Sister Carols,” Rose said.

Sister Carol, who died in 2017, was quiet but knew how to speak up for change when necessary. Rose recalled when the Erie School District was closing schools and revamping boundaries. Children from Little Italy, on the west side, would be assigned to Pfeiffer-Burleigh on the east side. Sister Carol decided to speak to then-Superintendent Jay Badams.

Sister Carol told the superintendent that “some kids are going to have to walk over busy streets in the worst neighborhood to get to school.” Map in hand, she suggested that perhaps the kids could go to Harding School instead. The superintendent responded, “That’s probably something we should address in the future.”

Before school started, Sister Carol asked the kids to meet at the Neighborhood Network office. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, she walked them to school that first week so they would know the safest routes. Now, former refugees in that neighborhood follow in Sister Carol’s footsteps, walking their kids to the bus stops, because bus transportation is now provided to the kids, thanks to Sister Carol’s advocacy.

SECURING FUNDING

Of course, goodwill alone can’t change a neighborhood. Rose Graham, the former executive director who is now a full-time grants administrator for Penn State Behrend, explained that tax credits have been key to the visible, positive changes you see in the neighborhoods where the networks operate.

“One of the key change-makers was the ability of the Sisters of St. Joseph to get tax credit dollars and to be the first Elm Street program in many years in the City of Erie,” she said.

The first three fiscal partners were Saint Vincent Hospital, Northwest Savings Bank and Marquette Savings Bank, she said. Companies had to be willing to commit at least $50,000 a year for five or six years, she said, “Without those three initial partners, nothing would have happened,” she said.

When Erie Insurance also came on board as a partner, that was also a “game-changer,” she said.

The SSJNN has also found a partner with Housing and Neighborhood Development Services, which built North Coast Place apartments in the 300 block of West 18th Street, across from the SSJNN office.

Heather May Caspar, the current executive director, points out that growth begun under Rose’s leadership was the beginning of a transformational period for the organization. Ten years ago, the annual budget was $325,000; Caspar’s first year, 2016, it was $625,000; now it’s $1 million.

Heather pursued newer partners, like the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA), another important funding source for neighborhood revitalization and community development activities.

According to the 2019 annual report, 50.1 percent of the budget comes from grants , with 36.2 percent from donations. On the expense side, a scant 2 percent goes to fundraising, while 93.4 percent of the budget is devoted to programming.

Only a small amount of the grants and tax-credit funding can be used for salaries. Heather, the staff and the board are working on updating the strategic plan for the SSJNN, although COVID-19 “put a pause on everything,” she said.

A major goal will be to come up with ideas and actions for sustainability.  “With the exception of rent on a handful of units, we don’t have any pay-for-service income,” Heather said.

LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD

Pandemic or not, the SSJNN investment in “social enterprise” – the people who live and work in the neighborhoods – continues.

“Social enterprise” is at work when renters become homeowners who live in a neighborhood where the streets are well-lit, where the sidewalks are in good repair, where there are benches to take a pause to observe the happy activity.

It’s visible when young people learn from Gretchen Gallagher Durney and volunteers how to farm and then market what they grow, and where residents and visitors can buy healthy, local food at the weekly Farmers Market.

It expands horizons when children can read and do math at grade level, thanks to tutoring help and support for their families, and when the kids can start dreaming about what they want to be when they grow up, thanks to a career education program, for example, that Colleen Burbules began at McKinley Elementary School and expanded to Wilson Middle School.

“Social enterprise” keeps on rolling when people of all ages receive bicycles for much-needed transportation, through Pedal Mettle, a unique program run from  the East 26th Street office of SSJNN, according to Margarita Dangel, program manager.

Eric Brozell of BikeErie pitched the bike-repair program, Margarita said. “The idea fit with the results of our research about the neighborhood as in the 16503 area, more people than in any other ZIP codes are without cars and therefore without transportation. Additionally, the incoming immigrants over the last five years did not have the language skills to pass a driver’s license test and so they had extremely limited transportation as well. Shopping for big families with the store two or three miles away get much easier with a bike. It’s also a gift to the youth, especially the immigrant children, to be able to ride around the neighborhood and enjoy a ‘sense of freedom’ as most of their new lives were now more challenging,” Margarita said.

A SHINING GEM

Life is challenging when you live in poverty and have to worry about securing the basics of food, shelter, clothing and well-being.

But the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network thrives on hope. That’s what motivates Heather every day. “Knowing we’re making people’s lives better on a daily basis, there’s nothing better than that,” she said.

Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, who is celebrating her 70th year as a Sister of St. Joseph, got involved with the SSJNN at its beginning, after she moved back to Erie from Milwaukee, where she had been a professor of biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin (formerly the Marquette Medical School). “I became the SSJ social justice coordinator and early on, was a board member, so I witnessed some of the early challenges they faced in getting established,” she said.

But those hurdles have always been overcome, and that’s because Sister Mary Claire believes in the wisdom of these words spoken by anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That quote is applicable “to so much of what religious women have done over the years,” Sister Mary Claire said. When the SSJNN expanded to Erie’s east side, that was evidence for the success of the westside program and also demonstrated that the sisters were able to respond to the changing needs of the immigrant population on the east side, Sister Mary Claire said.

“So much of my life has been in science, and often comparisons are made between concepts of science and other fields, for example, theology, quantum theology,” she said. “However, what the story of the SSJNN has taught me is that to make social change requires continued patience and commitment in overcoming obstacles,” she said. “I think that the SSJNN is such a gem to me because I see how it developed from an idea to the reality that it is today. This didn’t happen by a quantum leap but by the steadfastness of so many over the years. Social progress is on slow time.”


LIZ ALLEN is a journalism graduate of Marquette University, a school she picked on the advice of her two high school journalism advisors, Sister Virginia Ann Gardner, SSJ, and Sister Josette Marie Gocella, SSJ.

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