The Beacon — The Beacon_042017
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Passaic Women’s Center Provides Place For Women To Feel Empowered
Cecile Pagliarulo

PASSAIC When shy, timid women muster the courage to walk through the doors at the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women in the former rectory of St. Nicholas Parish at 153 Washington Place, their lives are changed for the good. It is not by some majestic happening but by the simplicity of what the Center stands for — a peaceful and safe environment for women who live in the inner city to grow.

The Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women first opened its doors in early fall 2013. It began with a simple concept, but its mission stood behind the idea that when women are empowered, the family is strengthened and when the family is strengthened, the world becomes a better place. The many collaborators among the religious orders in the Diocese who were involved in the creation of the women’s center and serve in it, saw a great need in the inner city and moved forward with great faith and hope. The location of the center is significant. The city of Passaic is one of the poorest cities in the state with a poverty rate of more than three times the state average.

Now, nearly four years later, the Center has had more than 3,000 visits from women living in Passaic. Many are the heads of their households and their families are living at the poverty level. They come to the Center with a strong desire to learn English in order to help them communicate with their children’s teachers and to help them with their homework, and most importantly, to be more employable. They come to learn how to be creative, by learning to paint, and make quilts and crocheted items. They come to garden in the backyard of the center to grow fresh vegetables to feed their families healthy foods. They come to learn computer skills in the hope of finding a better paying job. They come for spiritual and moral support through the center’s ladies’ night programs and they come to learn more about their rights and the immigration process, along with paths to citizenship.

All these opportunities for these women would not be possible without the generous contributions and pledges made to Partners in Faith, the diocesan capital and endowment campaign, which in addition to supporting the Passaic Women’s Center, also supports diocesan Catholic Charities, parishes, Catholic school children, retired priests healthcare and the renovations to the Diocese’s mother church, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson.

“We are so very grateful to the Partners in Faith donors for their generosity,” said Sister of Christian Charity Ann Marie Paul, the Center’s director, since its inception. “Without them, the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women could not exist. When undertaking a new venture such as the Center, it’s possible to focus on growing the ministry or raising funds. It is very difficult to do both at the same time. Because of Partners in Faith, we could focus on growing this muchneeded ministry because the ‘seed money’ was already in place.”

The Women’s Center has a lot of “partners in faith” at work to make it a success. Open Mondays through Fridays, assisting Sister Ann Marie is Franciscan Sister Elaine Maguire, part-time associate director, and Sister of Christian Charity Gerardine Tantsits, part-time administrative assistant. Since its opening 34 volunteers, mostly religious sisters, college students and laywomen, have served the center leading the workshops and being a support team for the women.

One of the volunteers is Sister of Charity Patricia Reynolds, who has taught quilting at the Center since it opened. The class has been so well received that, in November 2015, the quilters held a “Christmas Boutique” selling items they had made. The proceeds of the sale — more than $3,000 — went to the women who made the items. There was a unanimous agreement among the women to use their profits to purchase their own sewing machines. Several of the women have begun to sell quilted items made at home. They hope that soon they can have an online presence and sell their handcrafted items on the Internet.

While quilting is a popular class, the most requested class is English as a Second Language (ESL). It is taught at various levels, eight times a week. Those who participate in the face-to-face classes can supplement and fast-track their English language skills by using Rosetta Stone software, given to the Center through a grant from the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth.

Two young women, who came to the U.S. from Peru to join their families in Passaic, can attest to the success of the ESL classes at the Center. In addition to the education they received at a local institution in the morning, they came to the Center four afternoons per week for the ESL classes. Recently, one of them received a high score in the test of English as a Foreign Language. Because of her test scores, she was able to be accepted at a local community college where she is studying nursing.

Sister Ann Marie said, “The women who visit the Center tell us that they appreciate the peaceful atmosphere when they walk through the door. They are motivated to learn because they are in classes exclusively with other women. In a co-educational setting, they are afraid to speak up — or many times, the men dominate the discussion. Here at the Center, they are taught by women and they learn with women. That makes a big difference in their participation.”

The Center was represented at the recent Diocesan Women’s Conference held at St. Paul’s Inside the Walls in Madison. Sister Ann Marie was one of the three keynote speakers and the Center sponsored a table with crocheted and quilted items for sale made by the women. Sister Ann Marie has also been a very visible spokesperson for the Center at many parishes around the Diocese giving talks, and leading missions and retreats.

Looking toward the future, Sister Ann Marie noted because of its exponential growth, the Center will require an expanded location within the next two years. “We have always planned based on the needs expressed by the women. Right now, that means we have at least one ‘Know Your Rights’ I'm - migration workshop each month. Before they expressed a need for these workshops, we had been planning to show them how to sell their handcrafted items online and to educate them about setting up a small business. We hope to be able to begin to do this in the spring,” she said.

[This is part of a series of stories on how Partners in Faith is strengthening the life of the Church in the Paterson Diocese.]