Helping men, women and children in need find suitable quarters to dwell never ceases to make the big heart of Sister Donna Dodge, S.C., swell.
She believes having a roof over one’s head is a God-given right and that helping to secure that right for those who can’t is the responsibility of all one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
As the executive director of the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation, Sister Donna oversees 11 sites in Manhattan, Rockland County and Staten Island that together provide 625 units of clean, safe, affordable housing to more than 800 residents comprised of families, seniors and others in need.
The religious congregation began its housing ministry in 1986. Its newest site, Markham Gardens on Staten Island, opened in the summer of 2013 and gave preference to those left homeless by Hurricane Sandy the previous fall.
“This is just one of many ways that Sisters of Charity respond to the signs of the times,” Sister Donna said.
Whether through private or government funding, everyone should have a place to live, “especially when some people have the advantage of multiple dwellings,” not all of which are in use, she added.
The most satisfying aspect of her duties, Sister Donna said, is hearing happy residents claim, “This is the safest, cleanest housing I have ever had in my life.”
“In a way, that’s a sad commentary,” she concedes, “because they’re probably in their 70s and 80s, but it’s certainly, from a ministry point of view, a very satisfying thing to hear—that, not me, but that our congregation is able to help people. At the same time, there are thousands of people out there for whom safe, affordable housing is not a possibility.”
That reality is both sad and frustrating, Sister Donna said, “because it’s so difficult to put up more units.”
Years-long waiting lists prevent her from immediately placing people who walk through her door desperate for a place to live.
But there is hope. The average person in the pew can help make safe, affordable housing a reality for the less fortunate, Sister Donna assures, by passing connections along to the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation, namely people or corporations who are interested in working with them.
Also on the director’s wish list are emergency funds to assist those with special, one-time needs, and a pastoral minister who can provide spiritual outreach, such as prayer and bereavement support groups, to the residents of varied denominations.
Sister Donna dispelled some common misconceptions about affordable housing residents, such as that they are uneducated and have always been poor.
She cited as an example a resident who had been a nurse at the Sisters of Charity-run St. Vincent’s Hospital, which closed in 2010. The woman, now in her late 70s, early 80s, “wound up living on the streets,” Sister Donna said. “You’re talking about somebody who was well-educated, who had a good job and a good home…Somehow, she made her way through our system or through the system and wound up in one of our houses. You’re just grateful that happened for her.”
During the universal Church’s celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life, which began in November and continues until Feb. 2, 2016, Sister Donna is reflecting on the treasures of religious life and being thankful for those who have accompanied her on the journey.
Sister Donna entered the Sisters of Charity of New York at Mount St. Vincent in 1966 and made final vows on her 30th birthday in 1978.
Raised in the Bronx at St. Rita’s and Holy Cross parishes, she credits her interest in becoming a woman religious to the influence of the Sisters of Charity who taught her at Cardinal Spellman High School, also in the Bronx.
The young sisters who served the school were actually the first Sisters of Charity she had met. “They were just models of charity and goodness and compassion. It was through those women that I felt that call.”
She entered the order with five friends. “I was the last one to decide. They said, ‘Why don’t you come along, we’ll have a good time?’ At that time, some of the sisters had me down as the first one to leave. They all left,” she said of her Spellman classmates, “and I’m still here.”
“I grew into the vocation,” Sister Donna added. “I still thank those friends for calling me. And I still keep up with them.”
The sense of peace that has prevailed throughout the years assures her she answered God’s call correctly. “There’s always an inspiration. When you’re in community, when you’re down, you always have people around who are up. When you’re doubting, you always have people who are very faithful.”
The people entrusted to her care have also propelled her, she said, in that “there are always needs to address…We’re living in a very, very exciting time,” she added of “the challenges on who we are and what we’re called to do and be for other people.”