by Maureen Hartmann

Joseph Shaw (at left) talks with Carol Johnson, director of St. Mary's. Lydia Gans photo
Joseph Shaw (at left) talks with Carol Johnson, director of St. Mary's. Lydia Gans photo

A giant puppet of Martin Luther King is being created today by the senior clients of St. Mary’s Center. The puppet will hold the “UN Declaration of Human Rights” or a quote from King, “It’s time to end poverty.” It is being put together for the End Poverty Procession planned for October 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
The program will begin at 9 a.m. at St. Mary’s Center at 635 22nd Street in Oakland. From St. Mary’s, a procession will march to the Oakland City Center, to the State Building, and then to the Federal Buildings. The public is invited to attend.
During my interview with Carol Johnson, director of St. Mary’s Center, a group of clients and staff was leaving the center to talk to high school students and ask for their presence at the procession.
This consciousness-raising for social justice and the procession are the fruits of the work of St. Mary’s staff, especially Margaret Hinckley who “has been coordinating training on leadership development.”
Reflection groups among the homeless and low-income seniors at St. Mary’s discuss issues such as Medicare and Medi-Cal, and affordable housing. The Alameda County Community Food Bank helps train seniors in issues such as food and hunger. Seniors are also participating in a Leadership Training Program in partnership with United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County.
Johnson declares, “The growing poverty in our community is so infuriating.” She was expressing her anger at the poverty in California, with the third highest poverty rates in the United States.
St. Mary’s Center trains clients for activism at different levels, and first reaches them by providing food, shelter and enrichment programs. St. Mary’s serves lunch to homeless and low-income seniors every day of the week except Saturdays, provides a winter shelter program, and offers art therapy by Susan Werner, and the Recovery 55 program. Daily recovery groups are frequently integrated with art therapy to help with overcoming addictions to drugs and alcohol. For seniors, there are also counseling programs and a health program. Verbal sharing over art leads to discussion of social justice issues.
This unique program at St. Mary’s Center had its beginnings in 1973 at Old St. Mary’s on Jefferson and Seventh Streets in Oakland. The parish school, run by the Holy Names Sisters, was closing, and the sisters and the priests who were at the church were aware of the intense needs in the neighborhood. They did a parish census, and found that seniors, who lived in low-income hotels, needed meals on Sundays. Also, the parishioners wanted a pre-school and aid to youth.
These social needs were met, and this was the seed of today’s programs at St. Mary’s Center. The pre-school continues down to the present day at St. Mary’s Center, and will be part of St. Mary’s Center in their new location.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, two parishes — St. Francis de Sales Cathedral Parish and St. Mary’s — joined together, with St. Mary’s parish on Seventh and Jefferson becoming the new home for the cathedral congregation. St. Francis-St. Mary’s congregation wanted the building in which St. Mary’s Center was based, so the center moved to its present site at the grounds for the old cathedral on 22nd Street. This move turned out to be a bonus for the center because of ample parking for volunteers and the big courtyard in which guests could relax.
Yet now St. Mary’s Center has to face the challenge of another move before December 1, 2006. Last year the Catholic diocese sold the property on which the buildings stood. The diocese was very helpful to the center’s predicament in that it offered St. Mary’s a lease purchase agreement for the site of St. Andrew-St. Joseph Church at 925 Brockhurst (corner of San Pablo and Brockhurst in Oakland).
The lease would last five years, and the rent would be $1 per month. The purchase price is $3.2 million and the diocese is committed to a $1.5 million matching grant toward the purchase.Carol Johnson predicts that St. Mary’s services will be the same at the new site. The gymnasium is furnished with bathrooms, showers, and a kitchen. But the gymnasium has to be remodeled to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and health needs. The gym is a huge room. It will accommodate some of the counseling rooms, the volunteer student nurses program, the art therapy department.
Included on the church property is an old house that was used as the rectory. Some of the counseling rooms will be downstairs in this house, and administrative offices will be upstairs. They will tear the soup kitchen down to make room for parking, but the senior lunches will be held in the gymnasium. The remodeling will cost $1.5 million dollars that needs to be raised by the end of December.
Johnson’s vision of the future of St. Mary’s Center is working to meet both the needs of low-income clients and the need for legislation to reduce poverty.
Johnson says, “I think what’s challenging to all the nonprofit agencies serving low-income people is a growing demand just to maintain their service-delivery in the economic climate that we’re experiencing. There has to be increased service-delivery for a growing population. It has to happen. What we’d like to do is reduce the need. But we’re at the bottom, trying to serve the need. So we’re working both ends of it. And that’s why it’s a special privilege to hold our October 17 event, observing the International Day to Eradicate Poverty.”
A client, Darlene Thomas, testifies: “They improved my life because now I’ve learned to get along better with people. I can cope with different situations. I was homeless for awhile. I sure did not like the shelter. They found me a home. They gave me food and stuff to help me make it through. Spiritually, I can thank God for having a place to stay.” Another client, Herbert Turner, witnessed to the fact that he gets almost all he needs at the center.
As Carol Johnson writes: “Budget cuts burden those least able to absorb the costs. While a war rages, housing costs soar and public schools falter, we are aware that most homeless men are veterans. The achievement gap is already visible when kids enter kindergarten, the cost of healthcare is bankrupting a growing number of people, and housing for extremely low-income people is nonexistent. Exercising our democracy and working in collaboration on issues of justice continues to be a priority.”
Social justice continues to be an issue at St. Mary’s Center, both for those in dire need, and for those seeking to address the root causes of poverty. At St. Mary’s Center, these two challenges are often met by the same people.

How to contribute or volunteer at St. Mary’s

Contact: Julie Merrill, St. Mary’s Center, 635 22nd St. Oakland, CA 94612. Phone (510) 893-4723 or e-mail

How to get help from St. Mary’s Center

Go to St. Mary’s Center, 635 22nd St., Oakland, CA until November 20. Beginning December 1, go to 925 Brockhurst, corner Brockhurst and San Pablo. (Buses stop at the corner.)