My Perspective: Forging relationships, "rebuilding the church" at The Fireplace
Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis Sharon Dillon, Leslie Carranza, Cassidy Klein, Abby Rampone and Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Julia Walsh
By Julia Walsh, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration
I entered religious life feeling excited to learn from my Franciscan Sisters and interested in other forms of faith-based intentional community, such as New Monasticism and the Catholic Worker movements. As I grew into my vocation, I felt called to be a Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, open to how I might be present to those on the margins and sharing the privileges of religious life with others.
As I deepened my commitment to religious life, I also started to find myself in spaces that blended artistic expression, spirituality and the pursuit for social justice. I taught high school for eight years. I lived and served at a spirituality center and began to enjoy hosting spiritual seekers at our dining room table. And every couple of years, I moved and lived with a different group of FSPA. Sharing life with my older sisters in community allowed me to learn from their example as they listened deeply, responded to inequity, offered warm hospitality and shared sacred space.
When I began working on a graduate school project that focused on young adults and loneliness, several questions and concerns ignited in me. Also aware that fewer people were affiliated with traditional religion, I began to wonder if the Spirit could be calling modern Catholic Sisters to cultivate new forms of spiritual community; to help decrease loneliness and offer sanctuary; to “rebuild the Church,” as St. Francis was told to do. I wondered what part I was meant to play in this movement.
While at a Catholic literary conference in 2019, I was surprised to hear writers share how lonely they felt. I also heard that those in the arts community long for non-institutional and affordable spaces to gather and rest. Among other creative and passionate people that included activists, I heard exhaustion and weariness. I was learning that social isolation plagues many populations, and burnout is a serious problem for changemakers. I was realizing that as a woman vowed to FSPA, an intergenerational religious community, I had a great privilege of spiritual community to share.
I started to dream and pray about forming a new intentional community that would offer space for rest and renewal for spiritual seekers, artists and activists. Then in early 2021, together with Sharon Dillon, a Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, I founded The Fireplace Community in Hyde Park in Chicago, Illinois. For me The Fireplace was inspired by the energy of the FSPA spirituality centers, dedication to the arts and passion for ending societal injustice — all rooted in Franciscan values. Now I delight in the opportunity to know people of different backgrounds and beliefs as they gather at The Fireplace to share in the ordinariness and sacredness of daily life.
The Fireplace Community in Chicago, Illinois | Guests gather in the backyard at The Fireplace
The Fireplace is an intergenerational, inter-congregational and intercultural community offering an antidote to loneliness and burnout, rooted in the shared rhythms of communal life and centered in compassion, contemplation and creativity. The Fireplace provides fuel and refuge to spiritual seekers, artists and activists — changemakers. I’ve come to understand that what we’re forming feels like a blend of Catholic Worker house and spirituality or arts center, but we are a community and a sacred space — a home, not an institution.
The five of us who reside here span the generations. We work to share leadership and power and mutual aid. We aim to be a healthy community that is a warmly welcoming refuge for our neighbors and guests.
We host both informal gatherings and public events at The Fireplace. We share our home with retreatants and those who need safe spaces for renewal. Over a span of two weeks this summer, we hosted seven dinners, eight gatherings around the backyard firepit, two board game nights, four prayer services, two overnight retreatants and a half-day writers’ retreat. A lot is happening here!
Each of these occasions was intergenerational and intercultural gatherings that fostered authentic relationships. More importantly, our guests came to know and support each other and share mutual aid and community care. Neighbors gather at our dining table or firepit. Students and activists who are lonely or nearing burnout find joy and connections in our home. I wonder if we are becoming a center of a hub of community.
It has been quite a journey to The Fireplace while living out my vows as an FSPA. Yet in this creative and compassionate community, my life continues to be enriched and transformed by each encounter. At The Fireplace, the Spirit is our guide and I am thrilled to be present to others as an FSPA while I work to “rebuild the Church.”
Learn more about The Fireplace Community at thefireplacecommunity.org.