The morning is cold and dark when Sister Rose McLarney comes out of the old brick building on Beacon Hill and opens the gates to the street.
She gets the 5 a.m. duty because she will leave soon to go swimming.
For now, she goes back inside and there in the warm kitchen, with coffee almost ready, the women who live upstairs come down to talk. Big things, little things. McLarney, 75, a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, listens, the women’s ease and candor settling in more each day since they arrived at the new Journey House — dates they can cite immediately.
“Because that’s the day we got out of prison,” said Sher Bialczyk, 53.
This is an odd-couple story. For years, the Catholic nuns here lived in the quiet peace of a convent. Now they share digs with 15 younger women who have been stabbed, beaten, molested, hooked on drugs and done time.
“I don’t think the sisters knew what they were getting in to,” one of the women said. “I’ve seen them go count to 10.”
The idea of Journey House — viewed at first as a crazy idea by four old nuns, a take the nuns did not totally reject — is that they would help the women with job searches, life skills, rehabilitation and health care while keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.
The sisters quote Scripture; the women speak something else. But these two groups have come together, an embrace of one’s need for help and the other’s will to give it. That goes both ways.
The nuns say the women gave them new purpose, stoking hearts that answered a calling long ago. A few times that calling has come in the middle of the night from a woman needing a ride home.
The nuns pull on their robes and head out.
“I’ve seen parts of this city I didn’t know existed,” said Sister Gabrielle Smits, at 72 the youngest of the bunch.
The oldest, Sister Martha Niemann, 87, smiled big and said: “I like it here — there’s always something going on.”
So, this place is a bit livelier than the convent?
The nuns all laughed at that.
When Journey House opened in September, it was set up so the sisters had their own living room in their wing. They don’t use it. The World Series took care of that. Those games threw the whole bunch all together in one room and by the time the whoops and hollers ended — think the bonding power of Eric Hosmer’s mad dash home in Game 5 — they had learned they were not all that different.
McLarney knew that already from those early morning sessions in the kitchen.
“I know their stories, and if I would have had that life, I’d probably be in the same place,” she said.
Georgia Walker, a former nun and executive director of Journey to New Life, the organization that started the house, has a rap sheet herself. She’s been arrested more than once for trespassing at the Honeywell plant in Kansas City and Whiteman Air Force Base to protest nuclear weapons.
In January, Walker, 68, became a Catholic priest, sort of. Catholic canon law rejects women priests. Walker rejects canon law.
Niemann has a gambling problem.
“Addiction is very lonely,” she said.
A lot of sharing goes on at Journey House.
The women from prison say the place is the closest thing to a home they’ve had in years.
“I don’t really have family — not anymore,” said Sandy Lightell, 48. “The sisters are my family now. I will never be able to repay them for what they’ve done for me. Like everyone here, I’ve done drugs and I’ve done crime, and I know God is working through them to get to us.
“They’ve taught me to give something in my heart and I never want to hurt them.”
Bialczyk said: “I don’t want to be anything else than what I am right now.”
Only one woman has been told to leave. She would not stop using drugs. The nuns watched from the window as she walked away that day, her suitcase refusing to stay latched and the contents spilling onto the street.
They prayed for her then and think about her still.
“Sometimes we have to lift each other up,” Walker said. “But there’s not a day I regret coming here.”
Not everyone accepts the notion of divine intervention, so this story will have to settle for really great timing.
Last spring, the Missouri Department of Corrections announced that it would convert the Kansas City Community Release Center into a prison. For years, the facility at 651 Mulberry St. had served as a halfway house for men and women leaving prison. The new prison would be for men only.
That meant women might have to stay longer in prison because they couldn’t be released without a place to live.
About that same time, the Society of St. Pius X was looking for a buyer for a building on Tracy Avenue that had been used for priest training. The society pitched the building to Operation Breakthrough, the large urban child care provider.
Breakthrough director Sister Berta Sailer declined, but said she knew someone who might be interested. Sailer serves on the board for Journey to New Life.
The nonprofit, with offices in the 3100 block of Troost Avenue, was set up two years ago to help individuals leaving prison make the transition back into society. Housing had been a constant challenge. Walker first floated the idea of opening a home for women and McLarney, chairwoman of the Journey board, told her she was crazy.
Then McLarney and the others got on board, and people said they were all crazy.
The whole thing appeared moot because Journey didn’t have money to buy the building anyway. It had been built in 1925 and McLarney thinks it was used as some kind of hospital for the blind.
But then a donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote a check for $347,000 to buy the place.
“Journey could never have done this on our own,” McLarney said.
After remodeling and furnishing — with virtually everything donated, including labor by 75 volunteers — Journey House opened in September. The home now has a waiting list after quickly filling to its zoning limit of 15 women who would be who knows where without it.
“Berta calls this place a miracle,” said Smits, who jumped at the chance to be part of it after living 30 years in the convent.
She had been a chaplain at St. Joseph Medical Center.
“There I worked with the dying,” she said. “Here these women have a second chance.
“Our mission has always been to love the dear neighbor. This is our opportunity to do that. Here we see how truly broken our world is.”
Susie Roling, a caseworker at Journey to New Life, knows all the sisters well.
“They are doing what Jesus would do, reaching out to society’s forgotten population,” Roling said. “They are giving these women love, dignity and a fresh start, which is not what they would get from their PO (parole officer) or a halfway house.”
The women range in age from 23 to 55. Some are estranged from family. Almost all had been incarcerated at the Chillicothe Correctional Center for nonviolent crimes mostly associated with addiction.
Lori Hadley, 43, had been at the release center on Mulberry when the place changed over. She crammed as many belongings as she could into a trash bag and hit the streets.
“I had no place to go,” she said. “No family, no friends. I was almost ready to give up and go back to prison. It was getting cold. Then I got to come here.”
Tears filled her eyes.
“I thank God for giving me these sisters.”
Tiffany Norris, 26, tells about the night her father’s heart stopped in an intensive care unit. It was 1:30 a.m. She woke McLarney.
“She got up and took me to the hospital,” Norris said.
McLarney waved off that story.
“I’m an old nurse — middle of the night means nothing to me.”
On a recent morning as coffee dripped, a woman came through the kitchen with a basket of laundry. Others grabbed cereal boxes. Some checked the calendar on the refrigerator.
Talk was mostly about jobs and classes and drug tests and court cases.
One had already come home from an overnight shift at a 24-hour hamburger joint on Broadway.
Women rush out to the bus stop on 31st Street.
None of them has a car?
McLarney shook her head and smiled.
“They struggle for cigarette money,” she said.
Some, like Veronica Pullen, 43, spend time upstairs in the computer room, where the equipment was donated by Avila University to help with job searches, studying and re-establishing family ties.
Pullen had been a wife, mother and truck driver living in Maine until going to prison. She was addicted to opiates. She had no way to talk with her children until finding them on Facebook.
Now she often wakes to her young daughter’s words, “Hi, Mommy,” which sometimes make her cry.
“I want my life back,” Pullen said.
The women do all the cleaning and cooking.
“We get to come and go — they just like to know where we are,” said Laneen Mason, who hopes to land a job as a nursing assistant.
Everyone is expected to be present at evening supper in the big dining room. On a recent night before mealtime, Bialczyk talked excitedly on the phone.
When the call ended, Walker asked what happened.
“AC/DC’s coming to town,” Bialczyk said.
Walker rolled her eyes. “I thought you got a job.”
After grace at the table, Walker, as usual, warned the women about using poppy seed dressing.
“Throws off their drug tests,” McLarney explained.
When the place first opened, the thought was that a typical stay would be 30 days. Now it’s looking more like 90. But that’s OK, McLarney said. What happens here is too important.
“It’s one thing to say we see God in everyone — here we live it everyday. This is the walk.”
At 10 p.m., the long day at Journey House ends. McLarney, the early riser, already sleeps.
Gates closed, lights out, hearts stoked.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182