Karen House Catholic Worker
History of Karen House
Karen House belongs to the "second generation" of the Catholic Worker in St. Louis. Catholic Workers were active in St. Louis from 1935 until 1942, and again in 1977 when a new house of hospitality was opened.
Named for its first guest, Karen House was founded in 1977 by seven women as a shelter for women and children. At one point, Karen House housed seventy guests in a building more suited for thirty. It was one of very few shelters for women at the time, and commented Virginia Druhe, one of the founders, "We learned everything by doing it wrong the first time." Gradually, the community members began to accept fewer people in order to provide them with better hospitality.
1840 Hogan St.
Saint Louis, MO 63106
Today about 30 people, including five community members, live in Karen House. Several community members also live in the surrounding neighborhood. The Karen House community strives to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy within the context of a crowded and chaotic house. Food and sandwiches are given out daily between 12:30 and 3:30. All are welcome to the Tuesday night Mass held in the upstairs chapel, and to the community-led liturgy on the second Tuesday of the month. Karen House publishes The Roundtable quarterly, and Roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought are sometimes held in the big dining room.
The Karen House community is supported by a huge local network of volunteers, friends, cooks, and housetakers. Donations of food, clothing, and supplies made to the house are shared with the neighbors and guests by the community, and money donated supports the bills, maintenance, and general running of the house.
The "second Generation'' of the Catholic Worker in St. Louis has included several “experiments in truth.” over the years. By far, the largest endeavor was Cass House. Between 1978 and 1988, Cass House served an immense number of people. Accommodating both men, and women & children in separate areas, Cass House was a huge operation that also included a soupline. The tremendous demand for leadership and dedicated volunteers at Cass House led to it's termination in 1988. In addition to problems with lack of people, the city would have required the house to undergo widespread repairs to remain in operation. The community had not the people-power, nor the resources, to continue.
The Ella Dixon House is another such experiment in truth. Known also as "Little House," the Ella Dixon House is a smaller and more long-term establishment for those with low income, which provides three apartments for guests.
The Dorothy Day Co-Housing Community attempted to create a more egalitarian community between Catholic Worker-types, and former guests of Karen House. The community existed for five years, with members meeting weekly and supporting one another. Participants all lived within the Karen House neighborhood. Meals were shared, kids received new opportunities for education, and a truly radical experiment was conducted.
New communities are emerging in the Karen House neighborhood as we speak! The Carl Kabat Catholic Worker community is beginning a new ministry of offering hospitality to immigrants. The Teka Childress Catholic Worker House, still being rehabbed, will offer longer-term hospitality to one family.
In the Spring of 1935, Saint Louis University (SLU) invited Dorothy Day to address the University. Addressing a packed house, Dorothy gently suggested that the SLU community begin a house of hospitality, soupline or discussion group, citing a group of Boston College students as examples.
Inspired by Dorothy's visit, graduate student, Cyril Echele contacted all of the subscribers to the Catholic Worker from the St. Louis area, inviting them to form a group. By March of the following year, this group had an address, a small following, and a new name: Campion Propaganda Committee. A failed farming commune experience that summer did not deter the group from continuing its work in the City. The Campion Book Shop, located at 3526 Franklin Ave., just north of the SLU campus, opened in the fall of 1936. Weekly meetings were held to discuss personalism, unemployment and other pressing issues. These early Catholic Workers are remembered as a "starry-eyed group full of enthusiasm" by Echele. As the line for coffee and bread increased every day, so too did the fervor of this small band of lay people.
A sit-down strike at Emerson Electric in the spring of 1937 provided the Workers an opportunity to support the strikers within the context of the liturgy. The Catholic Workers were interested in integrating spirituality into all aspects of life, including work. The relationship between labor and liturgy was one that would be explored in many discussions and lectures. A small newsletter, Catholic Alliance, discussing liturgy and social action, was begun, and freely distributed on the street.
The Catholic Workers took an interest in interracial activity, an unpopular subject in St. Louis during this time period. They agitated for the desegregation of SLU, and provided doctrine classes for the People of the "colored" Catholic parish, St. Elizabeth. When the Workers moved to Pine Street, to a building across from the College Church, they named St. Louis Hospice, a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine class was held for "about thirty colored children." Several of the women made hospital visits as the varieties of social services increased. Speakers visited, lecturing on liturgy and its relationship to literature, family, and art, among other subjects. As both a soupline and a shelter, St. Louis Hospice endured tenuously, as many Worker houses do. Moving their operation to a duplex at 312 South Duchouquette Street was the beginning of the end for the St. Louis Catholic Worker. Suffering from a lack of leadership, enticed by the booming wartime economy, and caught up in the wartime fever, many Workers moved on or got married. In late 1942, the doors were closed as a chapter in the history of the St. Louis Catholic Worker ended.