On October 5, 1989, thirty years ago this week, a nun and a bishop led a dedication ceremony in McAllen for a first-of-its-kind house, Casa del Consuelo. During the ceremony, Sister Marian Strohmeyer and Bishop John Fitzpatrick described the Valley’s dire need for the unique house and then how the people of the Valley rose to meet that need with generous donations of money, gifts and labor. I attended the ceremony and knew firsthand that Sister Marian and Bishop Fitzpatrick believed the Valley’s generosity would make the place grow. Thirty years later, with a trip back to Casa this past month, I see that they’ve been proven right.
Who were Sister Marian and Bishop Fitzpatrick? What was Casa del Consuelo? How did a nun, a bishop and the Valley pull it all off? For some answers, I’ll go back to just nine days before the dedication ceremony.
On September 26, 1989, I had taken a flight from Kansas City and my home state of Missouri to Houston and then caught a puddle-jumper down to Harlingen in South Texas.
At the Harlingen airport, a straight-backed, silver-haired nun met me with a smile and greeted me as though we knew each other. Sister Marian, my new boss. With her direct friendliness, she was picking right up from our phone calls, the first being a telephonic job interview and then the follow-up conversations offering me a job and discussing next steps.
So this was our first in-person meeting, and also the moment marking my first steps in the Rio Grande Valley. But no going back. Any further tire-kicking or probationary period by either of us had already been waived—I was her right-hand man by virtue of a one-year volunteer program called VESS and the Valley would be my home.
From the airport, Sister Marian drove us straight to McAllen and to the very property that would occupy our joint efforts for the next twelve months: a half-acre plot on Dallas Avenue that had a former single-family home under considerable renovation.
It was just past dark and the workers had already left. Sister Marian, Bishop Fitzpatrick and the Diocese of Brownsville had tasked the workers with converting the single-family home into the state’s first free-standing AIDS and cancer hospice. It was to have three resident rooms, a bathroom with state-of-the-art modifications, an office, a living room and kitchen. An apartment for the resident manager had just been attached to the back.
Sister Marian and the Bishop called the place Casa del Consuelo. Comfort House. We planned to have it open by October 5, 1989 with a dedication ceremony that would include all staff, supporters and perhaps even the house’s first residents. Though it was a Diocese project, the hospice and its services were non-denominational, and Sister Marian's plan was that anyone of any faith or no faith who lacked the resources to die with dignity anywhere else could come and spend their final weeks or days here.
She first showed me the three bedrooms. They were already finished: small, without doors, but warm and inviting. The San Antonio artist G.E. Mullan had donated a wonderful series of framed prints and a different one brightened, deepened each room. Sister Marian said that with respect to outfitting the house, she had found that her money was no good in the Valley. No one would take it; everyone was donating, whether it was electric hospital beds, furniture, appliances, wheelchairs, wheelchair ramps and even a pickup truck.
We stopped in the kitchen to inspect the donated appliances that had just been installed. Sister Marian flipped one of the stove top knobs back and forth, but to no avail.
“Damn,” she muttered. No flame, but one preconception of pious nun speech that I tried to bring to South Texas had just been incinerated in the Valley night.
Making a note to call a repair person for the stove, we then walked into the backyard and over to the new apartment the workers were adding to the back of the hospice. My new living quarters as the first resident manager of Casa del Consuelo. A new roll of carpet sat on the floor. A new bed had been donated by a local furniture store. The closet even had a donated iron sitting on the top shelf.
Sister Marian noted that my new closet shared a vent with the closet of one of residential rooms. She said that she had learned that the vent inadvertently allowed and perhaps even amplified sound from the residents’ rooms.
“Your Early Warning System during the night shift,” she remarked.
That would turn out to be an accurate prediction. Over the next twelve months, I would hear emergencies loudly develop with the night staff minutes before they knocked on my door requesting help.
Out in the backyard, she told me about a leaf-cutter ant infestation, wild parrots, new developments with AIDS medicine and community awareness events about hospice care and especially HIV and AIDS. She emphasized again that the Valley was supporting this project, from the neighbors on Dallas Avenue, the churches of all denominations, the businesses and the local government. For this Missouri kid who had just seemingly parachuted into a balmy Valley evening, it was all a whole new world. But what already seemed like home was Sister Marian’s humor and toughness. And it helped to see evidence that an entire community was rallying around her to make this special place possible.
She went back to the ants. "Those leaf cutter ants skip our trees but go over there and strip theirs," she said, pointing to our next door neighbors. "That couple is on me about getting rid of the ants."
"So a neighbor dispute already?"
She shook her head, "A neighborly one. I like them. They did not bat an eye when I told them this would be a cancer and AIDS hospice next to them. They're good people . . . but good people with suddenly very ugly trees."
Even as we headed back to her car, I had already recognized the moment out there in the backyard as one of the most special in my life. Here was a legendary nun talking with me like a colleague and friend about how we were part of something important.
For the next week and a half, renovations continued at the nascent hospice house. For my immediate lodging, Sister Marian loaned me a room at her sprawling ranch on North Ware. It was her and her family’s longtime homestead property, and in late seventies she converted part of it into a shelter for refugee families escaping from El Salvador and Guatemala. In the sanctuary movement and along its underground railroad lines, her place was known as Casa de la Merced.
Casa Merced usually had about twenty refugees, many of whom were mothers and children, when I lived in McAllen, and had at least another three refugee workers living there to help Sister Marian take care of the refugees present and future needs. Sister Marian had worked as a nurse and supervising nurse all over the country, and then was the administrator for Brownsville’s Mercy Hospital in the sixties. An incredible run of hands-on experience, but in 1969 she went to the University of California-Berkeley to get a Masters in Community Health Planning.
Thanks to Sister Marian, I have always associated Berkeley with smart, rebellious people. She embodied those traits by expertly directing Casa Merced’s refugee services--which were in violation of federal immigration law-- the hospice, a health clinic and most of the Valley’s health services all at the same time and all for poor people and refugees during extremely difficult times. And Bishop Fitzpatrick, originally a Canadian kid, for twenty years oversaw a diocese that supported at least two other illegal refugee shelters.
These two Rio Grande Valley Catholics sent thoughts and prayers for peace to Central America every Sunday, but rolled up their sleeves to help refugees and poor people every single day.
In the run-up to Casa del Conseulo’s opening on Oct. 5, I spent my days either at the hospice working on the renovations or helping Sister interview potential volunteers, staff and terminally ill residents. I was getting to know the community. The hospice staff and I were getting specific training about how to deal with the grief of terminally-ill residents who had lost much of their physical freedom and were about to lose their lives as well as family members who were about to lose their loved ones.
But an especially deep and moving part of this first week in Texas was listening to an entire community grieve--everyone in the Valley--as they tried to come to terms with one of the nation's worst tragedies, the school bus crash on Sept. 21 at Alton that had taken the lives of 21 of the Valley's junior and high school students.
My evenings were with the refugees, the shelter's workers and often asylum attorneys. As an outsider who was a good listener, I heard more and different stories of grief and courage from the refugees who had given up their homes and home countries to find a better life, a safer life for themselves and their kids. (My Spanish was mediocre, so this was through much interpreting from the workers and nuns who worked there.)
The work on the hospice was complete by Oct. 3. We also had a large volunteer force ready to go. Mary Ellen Salinas, our first and very wonderful volunteer coordinator, along with Sister Marian and I all worked to recruit a team of volunteers, speaking at community meetings and churches. They had at least fifteen volunteers lined up before I arrived and we had five more by the opening.
We had also found our first three residents, two of whom moving in shortly before the dedication ceremony. We were very fortunate with those first three, brave people with a mix of friends and family that would help us start a currency of courage, grace and humor that would be passed every week among residents, family, volunteers and staff.
Sue, for example. One of the new residents, Sue, with terminal liver cancer and a new pain medicine regimen, sat in the living room just before the dedication ceremony began. She knew from the ceremony’s printed program that Sister Marian would introduce me and that I would then read from the Bible. I told her and her daughter Marcie that I had never read a Bible verse in public before and asked them both to keep a few feet away from me in case of lightning bolts or sinkholes. They laughed, gave me encouraging words, and then, with Sue’s directions made in jest, Marcie hurriedly moved Sue's wheelchair all the way across the room.
Sister Marian, catching all this, said I would be fine and headed to the front of the room to get the ceremony started.
"The purpose for Casa del Consuelo, for Comfort House," said Sister Marian as she spoke to about forty people who had gathered for the dedication ceremony, "is to give people who lack financial resources a chance to die with dignity and in peace." She told them the story of how the place came together and the names of the many people and businesses who contributed.
After she spoke, there was a song. Then Sister Marian introduced me as the resident manager and Blanca Pinner as a nursing consultant and volunteer. Sister then asked Blanca and I to read the selected Bible readings, mine being a verse from the Book of John.
"My Father's house has many rooms," was one of the verses I read from John.
A fitting verse. A house with at least three rooms for now, I had thought to myself while rehearsing the reading. But I did not ad lib while reading the Bible in front of a nun and a bishop, and perhaps as a reward for that restraint, I was not swallowed up by the earth or struck by lightning. Bishop Fitzpatrick closed the ceremony with several blessings, and I went on to live and work at Casa del Conseulo/Comfort House under Sister Marian’s direction for twelve of the most blessed and meaningful months of my life. Twenty-four people came through and graced those three rooms with their unique lives and deaths during that time, changing those rooms into different worlds each time.
Thirty years later, in September 2019, I walked through the rooms of Casa del Consuelo/Comfort House with its new executive director, David Perez. The 2019 version of Casa is actually two houses and the new, main house certainly does have many rooms, ten altogether, and all beautifully appointed. There is a bigger staff, and fundraising is more diverse, stable. It's also now a separate non-profit.
There have been ups and downs for Casa over the decades, but it was obvious from the impressive tour that the Valley community has come through for this place again and again. That has enabled Casa del Consuelo to fulfill Sister Marian’s dream, to give comfort to thousands of residents and family members who had nowhere else to go, only to find that this house with many rooms was one of the best places to go.
On that same trip to the Valley last month, David also showed me a garden out back where memorial stones of all shapes and sizes honor many of the people who have spent their last days in the home. From the memorial garden, I looked back toward the house and realized that the garden covers the same ground where during that very first night in September of 1989 Sister Marian had told me how the community was coming through in a big way for the hospice.
Sister Marian herself passed away in 2012 in McAllen, but her words and actions, her tirelessness and her brilliance, and the way the Valley rose up to help her with Comfort House, have all been a constant inspiration.