The ladies of St. Mary of Providence

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Smiles and hugs are the order of the day for the women living at St. Mary of Providence on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The women who call 4200 N. Austin Ave. home regularly dish out hugs to the people caring for them, to their fellow residents and to the occasional visitor they meet. It rarely fails to produce a smile upon the face of the recipient.

“Our ladies have such a way to touch people that brings the goodness out of people,” said Daughter of St. Mary of Providence Rita Butler, director.

It’s a special gift but St. Mary’s is a special place. St. Mary’s is a residential facility for women with developmental disabilities started in 1925 by the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.

The facility began as a school for children with developmental disabilities and over the years has evolved to fit the needs of its constituency. Today, it is a residential facility for women over the age of 18. The youngest resident is 23 and the oldest is 62 with the average resident in her 40s. Eighty-seven women live at St. Mary’s and the facility can accommodate 96.

St. Mary’s provides intermediate care and a community living facility at the site. All of the residents, who the staff affectionately refer to as “the ladies,” live in apartments with several other residents and share meals together. They all receive 24-hour nursing care.

“The ladies receive a quality of life here that promotes their dignity, promotes respect for them,” said Butler. “One of our ladies says, ‘I’m not sick. I’m just a little different.’”

It is a busy life at St. Mary’s. The more mobile, independent residents regularly go out into the community either on their own if they are able or with the staff.

During the week, the women split up their days with time in a vocational workshop and educational sessions. In the workshop, they fulfill orders for one of the contracts St. Mary’s has for piecework. They will assemble boxes, fold plastic laundry bags, group plastic cups or whatever the contract calls for. Each woman receives a paycheck for the work that she does.

During the educational sessions, they learn different things like how to count money, how to purchase items and what they cost. All skills that they utilize during their shopping trips.

“Their favorite thing is shopping. They love Kmart,” said Butler.

There are always other activities going on for the residents and all are able to go home to visit family every other weekend and on holidays.

‘You would see God’

Each apartment has a house mother who lives with them and a case manager assigned to it. The house mother is one of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence living in community there. Twelve sisters live at St. Mary’s with three women in formation for religious life.

Sister Charleen Badiola is one of the house mothers and assistant administrator and said no day is ever the same living with the women. Some days can be more challenging than others, but overall, it is very rewarding work, Badiola said.

“If you could live with them, you would see God,” she said.

Badiola said she learned about her vocation as a religious sister through living with the women.

“Their simplicity and their love of God is incredible,” she said.

With the advances of medicine and health care, people with disabilities are living longer so the residents of St. Mary are aging, said Administrator Darlene Zdanowski. This provides a new set of challenges for the staff and for the facility’s budget. New health issues present themselves and the facility has to be upgraded to fit their needs.

The women’s parents are aging and they are becoming unable physically to care for their daughters if something would happen to St. Mary’s, Zdanowski said.

With the state and federal government looking to cut budgets, St. Mary’s, and similar programs, are concerned about how they will continue to fund a high level of care. St. Mary’s also relies on fundraising for support, some of which comes from the efforts of the Friends of St. Mary’s, a volunteer group comprised mostly of family and friends of residents.

Often when governments cut budgets they go for programs like St. Mary’s first, said Father Tom Mulcrone, chaplain at St. Mary of Providence.

“When you do that you take away what is the lifeblood for the women at St. Mary’s,” he said. “What we provide is a quality of life that many of the parents or families want to provide but can’t.”

An extraordinary assignment

Mulcrone said for him, St. Mary’s is a “perfect” place to minister.

“It is by far the most extraordinary assignment I have ever had,” said Father Tom Mulcrone, chaplain at St. Mary’s. He is also chaplain for the Chicago Fire Department. “This is a place of angels. I don’t know how else to describe it. They are innocents, each and every one of them.”

Mulcrone has lived at St. Mary of Providence since 1999 (retired Auxiliary Bishop Thad Jakubowski also lives at St. Mary’s). He says often when the days are rough at the fire department, when he gets home he will go over and visit one of the apartments and the women brighten his day. “They put a smile on my face. They make everything OK,” he said.

Mulcrone says Mass for the women on weekends and once during the week. The women aren’t required to attend but most go anyway. Mulcrone always brings a bag with him to Mass where he puts something that helps him illustrate the Gospel that day, and the women eagerly await to see what is in the bag, staff said.

Mulcrone also called St. Mary’s staff “extraordinary.” He described how the staff treats the women as members of their families, even volunteering to take home the women without families on holidays or weekends.

“The staff is where it all happens,” he said. “They love the women as if they were their own.”

A home for their daughter

JoAnn McLaughlin agreed. Her daughter Suzanne moved into St. Mary’s when she was 24. She is now 42.

McLaughlin said that she and her husband don’t know what they would do without St. Mary’s. The couple is in their 70s so caring for Suzanne on their own would be difficult.

Plus, Suzanne considers St. Mary’s her home, McLaughlin said.

“The main thing there is they have friends. They are so busy. You couldn’t possibly supply that to them when they are home,” she said.

Suzanne visits her parents in Arlington Heights every other weekend and even serves as a greeter with her parents at St. James Parish. But Suzanne is always happy to return to St. Mary’s when the weekend is over, her mother said, adding that Suzanne has her bag packed Sunday morning even though she doesn’t go back until Sunday evening.

The couple sought out a Catholic residential facility for their daughter because they “felt it would be a better care,” McLaughlin said.

“She has become so much more independent being there and just happy. That’s really what you want for them is to have the best life that they can,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think we could have done anything better for her.”