At the Lisieux House, a unique community of young adult women strives for holiness
As she walks through the kitchen door, Alane Howard calls out, “I’m home, Jesus!”
She heads upstairs and makes her way past nine little bedrooms, each named for a saint: Pier Giorgio Frassati, Teresa of Calcutta, Maximilian Kolbe, Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Cecilia, Kateri Tekakwitha, Maria Goretti, Gianna Molla.
At the end of the hall is a small chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament resides in a tabernacle.
“I just go in and genuflect and say, ‘Hello, Jesus! I love you!’ and sometimes ‘Thank you for being here,’” Howard explained.
This has been Howard’s daily routine for most of the three years she’s lived at the Lisieux House, a former convent on the grounds of Seattle’s St. Matthew Parish that’s now home to a small community of young adult Catholic laywomen.
The women of the Lisieux House aren’t nuns, and they have their own lives and jobs outside the house — barista, bartender, parish receptionist, research scientist, seamstress, web manager — but their mutual support gives them strength for a life of discipleship.
“It’s not a religious community, it’s not a family, but it’s its own very vital relationship,” said resident Renee Corcoran. “And I couldn’t begin to say how much it has changed me.”
“It’s his house,” Howard said of Jesus in the Eucharist. “It’s such a gift.”
‘A house of life and of faith again’
The Lisieux House, which opened in 2014, was the fruit of a year and a half of hard work, prayer and “literally miracle after miracle,” according to Molly Gallagher, who currently serves as house leader.
Gallagher was less than a year out of college, working as a youth minister at St. Matthew’s, when she became the project’s champion in the spring of 2013.
The parish was trying to figure out what to do with a disused 1950s convent that drained tens of thousands of dollars from the budget and “had turned into a big junk room,” said then-pastor Father Jerry Burns. “I thought, Well, what can we do with this place other than use it to store all our old play props?”
Inspired by a couple of conversations with friends, Gallagher suggested the idea of a lay young adult house, modeled on similar houses in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “She did lots and lots of research,” said Arnie Williams, then-chair of St. Matthew’s pastoral council. “Molly is a pretty amazing gal.”
The parish sent a proposal to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who gave his encouragement. A work crew of 15–20 volunteer parishioners, led by John Buckley, spent a couple of months in the summer of 2014 making the building livable — cleaning, painting, updating the plumbing.
The house opened Sept. 15 with Lindsey Barry, a friend of Gallagher’s from college, as the first occupant. Soon more women arrived. “One by one, these girls that I’d never seen before just showed up, these amazing women,” Gallagher said. (Technically, they didn’t just show up — there’s a multistep application and discernment process.)
“As the home grew, it was beautiful because so many different types of women were coming,” said Barry, who spent about a year at the house before taking a job at a Catholic camp in Texas, “but they were all, at the core, interested in living a very intentional life, being focused on Christ.”
Several of the women said they’d been longing for a place like the Lisieux House — where they could live in a community that would nourish their spiritual lives — without realizing that it existed.
For women like Molly McCloskey, who moved in last December, the house “was literally an answer to prayer.” For St. Matthew’s, the project was a win-win, said Arnie Williams: “For us, it was a twofold benefit: 1) We were able to help our Catholic community, and 2) it helped the parish,” because the women’s modest rent offsets the mortgage payments.
“It was just a wonderful thing,” Father Burns said, “that a building that was just getting used for a storeroom became a house of life and of faith again.”
The women of the Lisieux House: Stephanie Baghoumina, Renee Corcoran, Molly Gallagher, Francine Gregorios, Alejandra Guido, Alane Howard and Molly McCloskey. Photos: Stephen Brashear
‘Devoted to sanctification’
The Lisieux House is named for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th-century French Carmelite nun whose “little way” of humility and childlike trust in God the women seek to emulate.
“Her little way — well, it’s not little, it’s really hard,” Gallagher said. “It’s just taking the ordinary things of life and sanctifying them. So when you do the dishes, you are doing that for love of God and love of neighbor.”
Gallagher describes the Lisieux House as “a lay community house that’s devoted to sanctification.” Everyone who moves in is expected to read St. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, and to find a spiritual director. The women are dedicated to praying for St. Matthew’s and the Archdiocese of Seattle.
Four nights a week, they gather in the house chapel to chant the office of compline from the Liturgy of the Hours. When the little glass bell rings at 9, Howard said, “it doesn’t matter if you’re halfway through your favorite movie — you drop it and you go upstairs and you pray.”
“For young adults,” Gallagher said, “just keeping that rhythm, like that heartbeat of your life, really helps.”
Each Tuesday evening, the women gather for a community dinner, which is “the glue” that holds the house together, Howard said. The table talk gets “very frank,” spiritually and emotionally, said Michael Shelby Edwards, who lived in the house for more than two years before getting married in August (four of her housemates served as bridesmaids).
Adrianna Garcia, who lived in the house from September 2015 to August 2016, fondly recalled the marathon three-hour meals. “We would go through highs and lows of the week, and the girls would just really share of themselves, of what consolation and desolation they were receiving in their relationship with Christ.” Garcia said her time in the house helped her discern out of the Navy and into a Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame.
Tuesday-night community dinners are "the glue" that hold the Lisieux House together. Pictured are Alane Howard (left) and Alejandra Guido. Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘I want that joy in my life’
If the Lisieux House sounds like a very serious place, well, in one sense that’s true. The women are intensely serious about growing in holiness and discerning their vocations.
But don’t mistake that seriousness of purpose for a dourness of mood. The house is full of laughter and music, good food and wine.
When Father Cal Christiansen, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace, first visited the house to celebrate Mass and share a meal, he expected to find a regimented, “pseudo-monastic” atmosphere. Instead, he said, “it had a real sense of home.”
“There definitely is a wonderful spirit there, a real spirit of joy, a spirit of hospitality and community,” he said.
Sister Mary Solanus Casey Danda, of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Trinity, who befriended the women of the Lisieux House while living at Seattle’s St. Alphonsus Church, marveled at the effect they’ve had on their many visitors (the house hosts parties, Bible studies, dinner guests and young women making retreats).
“There’s this incredible atmosphere of God’s love every time you walk through those doors,” Sister Solanus said. “People go in and they see these women and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s what I want, I want to be like that, I want what they have, I want that joy in my life.’”
‘A hunger for community’
Much of the attraction stems from the intentionality of the house’s community life. “Especially in our day and age, there’s a hunger for community,” Sister Solanus said. “Young people are looking for that communion, and they’re looking for others who are striving to live their faith so that they can share that and so that they can support one another. Because let’s just be honest — it’s hard to be a young adult Catholic in Seattle.”
The individual women enter the house with “incredible gifts,” Sister Solanus said, but living together “they draw each other really to their full potential.”
Alejandra Guido, a member of the community since April of 2015, agreed. “We’re contributing to each other’s discernment and we’re praying for each other,” she said. “Having that support and that community life is really valuable.”
“In our world,” said Renee Corcoran, who entered the house in December of 2014, “people are lonely — in the church and out of the church — and this is one of the most vibrant, real, authentic groups of people I’ve ever had a relationship with.”
“All people of all times crave community,” said Father David Mulholland, pastor of St. Mark Parish in Shoreline, who’s become a sort unofficial spiritual adviser for the house. “Community and communal living is what Christianity is all about. If you look in Acts Chapter 2, it talks about how the early church lived the communal life together.”
‘The courage to take risks’
For the women of the Lisieux House, this particular form of communal life must eventually come to an end.
This Oct. 1, the feast of St. Thérèse, marks Alane Howard’s third anniversary at the Lisieux House. Per the house constitution, she’ll soon have to move on.
The Lisieux House has been like a spiritual greenhouse, she said. “St. Matthew’s has allowed this space for our roots to get really, really deep so that we can get transferred somewhere else one day.”
As of early September, Howard didn’t know where exactly that would be. She feels “very deeply called to religious life,” but which particular community is still unclear.
In the face of that uncertainty, she is not afraid. Living at the Lisieux House has given her “the courage to take risks and make leaps of faith,” she said.
“God has shown me time and again while I’ve lived here that I’m safe, I’m loved, and he will show me what to do when it’s time to make a step.”
Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at [email protected].
Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].