After half a century, some things have changed, a lot of things haven’t at the Casa Maria “house of hospitality.”
For half of a century, Milwaukee’s poor have been directly served by Casa Maria, a self-proclaimed “house of hospitality” that provides relief for refugees, immigrants and the homeless, among other groups in southeastern Wisconsin.
Since its founding in 1966 by Michael and Annette Cullen, a married couple who are now both 74 years old, Casa Maria has changed locations – moving from Milwaukee’s south side to its current location on North 21st Street in 1968 – and now manages three buildings that currently shelter seven families and a dozen live-in volunteers. Casa will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on July 9, about three months before the actual anniversary, because “block parties aren’t as fun in October,” as live-in volunteer Caitlin O’Brien, 26, puts it.
The primary goal of the Catholic Worker house – tracing its roots beyond 1966 to Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker Movement and Great Depression-era Catholic radicalism – is to support and encourage homeless families. Whether it’s a mother and her kids leaving a “crisis situation” or a family unit that is struggling to make ends meet, Casa Maria aims to provide a secure home for them. “This gives them a place that they know they can come back to every night while they’re trying to find employment,” says Lincoln Rice, 39, a former live-in volunteer who has been working with Casa Maria for nearly 20 years. “They don’t have to worry about the fact that they can’t get a bus or anything to get their kids to school. It’s that stability for that short period of time.”
The main house looks like a typical family home: There is a garden in the backyard, loaves of bread and other groceries are sitting on the kitchen counter, a newspaper is spread across the dining room table next to Crayola markers that were presumably used to create some of the artwork that adorns the walls and fridge. It feels like a home, rather than a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. “This is a home and we’re inviting people into our home,” Rice explains.
Just two years after the Cullens opened the doors of Casa Maria, they were forced to return to Michael’s home country of Ireland when he was deported by the U.S. government for taking part in the Milwaukee 14, an anti-Vietnam War protest in which he and 13 others stole military draft documents and incinerated them publicly with homemade napalm. They didn’t return to the U.S. until the 1990s. Still, the unproven Casa Maria managed to survive without its patriarch and matriarch thanks to its belief in leading through group consensus, rather than a hierarchy. Decisions and changes are made only when all of the live-in volunteers agree that it would benefit the house. “Sometimes that can slow things down,” Rice says. “Everyone can see if we ever make a decision (that) it can have a very quick impact. It’s not like there’s someone in charge that doesn’t deal with the families here.”
All of the funding for the houses comes from individual donations and churches, Rice says. Casa receives no government money and isn’t even registered as a nonprofit, as doing so would require complying with certain governmental guidelines and restrictions that the volunteers don’t think would be worth it, even if it would provide the house with some benefits, such as becoming tax-exempt.
“Everyone can do something like this. Everyone has a little extra that they can share,” O’Brien adds. Casa Maria isn’t even strongly tied to the Catholic Church faith anymore, Rice says. The focus is primarily working towards social justice in the spirit of their founders, like Day and the Cullens. “It’s this idea that we shouldn’t be relying on the government or we shouldn’t be relying on institutions to solve our social problems when you might have the capability to do that yourself,” O’Brien explains.
Political advocacy is still a mainstay, as it has been throughout Casa Maria’s 50-year history, although its current members try not to be as confrontational as Michael Cullen and the Milwaukee 14.
“We don’t normally break into places,” Rice attests. With a particular fervor for pacifism, groups from Casa Maria commonly protest war, including a recent rally at a Wisconsin military base to show disapproval for U.S. drone attacks in the Middle East. Locally, they’re campaigning on more domestic issues, such as mother’s rights Child Protective Services cases, working with the Solidarity Network to combat unfair landlords and, most recently, boycotting Menards for supporting Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Bill 533, a Walker-supported law that makes it more difficult for people – particularly immigrants and the homeless – to get a state or local ID.
“They’ve tried to do the works of mercy, and I think that’s admirable,” Michael Cullen said. “It’s a testament to the city of Milwaukee.”
For the upcoming block party, Casa Maria will be taking over the 1100 block of N. 21st Street for a celebration that aims to bring together several generations of the Casa Maria and Milwaukee communities. Throughout the day attendees will be entertained by present and former Casa Maria residents will be performing music and poetry, there will be a bounce house and face painting for the younger crowd, not to mention a plethora of food. All this will be followed by a “Soup with Substance” supper in the evening, a more mellow gathering for people to share their stories about Casa Maria’s impact and reconnect with friends old and new. The Cullens, now 74-years-old and living in Ogema, Wis., plan to return to see how much their project has grown, changed and remained the same over the past five decades.