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Spiritual, mental, physical healing restores people’s voice

By providing an “oasis” of hospitality, spiritual direction, healing arts and counseling, St. Joseph’s Family Center seeks to strengthen people for their life journeys, allowing them to regain a voice and become advocates for others.

Pat Millen
Franciscan Sister Pat Millen, St. Joseph's Family Center

As executive director since July, Franciscan Sister Pat Millen connects her previous work with homeless people, many of whom deal with mental illness, with her current ministry.  Over the years, she has worked with individuals, couples, families, organizations, congregations and communities.

“Hospitality as a welcoming presence brings peace and harmony, enabling people to speak out for the voiceless members of society,” she said.

In addition to her administration work, Sr. Pat has been in dialogue with legislators about preserving the Disability Lifeline and low-income housing.  Budget cuts to these programs are proposed in the current legislative session.

If the lifelines are cut, there will be more homeless people,” she said.  “Many who suffer mental health issues are better off if they can live in an apartment rather than under a bridge.  An unsafe environment escalates mental health issues.  When basic necessities are provided, people are better able to focus on their mental wellbeing.”

With federal, state and local government funding decreasing for housing services, the center helps bridge the gap by providing counseling, anger management for men and women, and classes in parenting-children-of-divorce to help keep families together and in their homes with tools to overcome challenges they face.

Before coming to St. Joseph’s Family Center (SJFC), Sr. Pat worked eight years with Catholic Community Services Southwest in Bremerton, as director at the Kitsap Family Center and as program director of Benedict House.  She established a program called the Homeless Outreach Shelter Team (HOST), which provided 6,107 bed nights for 268 homeless men.  She raised $1.6 million to fund Benedict House, which opened in 2006 and provides room for 24 men.

Her fund development and communication background with Catholic Community Services led to her role at SJFC.  She connects mental illness with homelessness and believes the center helps prevent homelessness.

It’s easier for families to accept helping a member with diabetes or cancer than someone with bipolar illness, schizophrenia or substance abuse,” she said.

She sees the programs as preventative because they address mental health and family issues before they become severe.

We seek to develop the whole person to promote growth within families and create healthy communities,” she said.  “The Franciscan tradition of assisting individuals, couples and families is a core value of SFJC.

 “The challenge is always to provide enough funding for the programs,” said Sr. Pat.

St. Joseph’s Family Center has shifted from an annual fund-raising luncheon to hosting several events on its campus throughout the year, so supporters can see the center and its services firsthand.

The center began in 1890 as an orphanage and then became a children’s home in the 1970s when the Department of Social and Health Services shifted its focus to foster care.  Many orphanages, including St. Joseph’s, then closed.

The Sisters of St. Francis decided to use its facilities at 1016 N. Superior near downtown Spokane to work with religious women in the community, to develop a counseling program that assessed the whole person, body, mind and spirit. 

SJFC later added retreats and spiritual direction to serve people or any spiritual background or denomination.  It served more than 7,000 people in 2010.

Growing up Catholic in the Bronx, Manhattan and New Jersey, Sr. Pat decided in high school that she wanted to enter a religious order. After her parents separated, she stayed to help her mother. 

She was drawn to the life of her cousin, a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia, living with “the poorest of the poor in a rough area” of Washington, D.C.

Sr. Pat felt her cousin’s purpose in life was better than what she was experiencing in her work in the early 1970s at The Progressive Grocer, “a male-dominated magazine.” 

“The focus of the Sisters of St. Francis, in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, is to see the goodness of God in each person and in all of creation,” she said.

In 1978, she joined the Sisters of St. Francis, and her first mission was at Lancaster, Pa.

It was culture shock going from downtown Manhattan to a community of single women entering religious life and living in a rural area surrounded by Amish farms,” said Sr. Pat.

She made her final profession in 1986 in Baltimore, Md., when she completed her bachelor’s degree at Neumann University in Aston, Pa., in behavioral science and religion.  From 1985 to 1991, she led guidance programs and testing at Baltimore Catholic High School for girls in a blue-collar area where she responded to needs of poor and voiceless women and children.  She also took clinical pastoral education at St. Joseph Hospital and in 1989 completed a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at Loyola College in Baltimore.

From 1991 to 1995, she directed two shelters for women and children with the Ministry of Caring, Inc., in Wilmington, Del., before spending two years with Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, Alaska, promoting housing initiatives and gaining experience in ecumenical housing programs, including Habitat for Humanity.

Sr. Pat worked with homeless people, home-buyer education and housing advocacy for two years until moving to the Fairbanks Diocese in 1997 for two years to train Yupik Eskimos to be church leaders—Eucharistic and liturgical ministers, parish administrators and educators—at St. Marys, a bush village of 500 Yupik Eskimos.

She then moved from the cold and isolation to do an internship in affordable housing outreach with Mercy Housing System in Orange, Calif., and San Francisco.

“I learned to do community development, assessing needs for low-income housing and shelters,” she said.

St. Joseph’s Family Center’s mission aligns with the ministries of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in doing peace and justice advocacy, rebuilding the church, and doing religious education and spiritual ministries, she said.

Sr. Pat pointed out that the sisters see themselves “as companions, a healing presence and examples of God’s love in a violent world.”

For their healing arts programs, the SJFC recently received the Holistic Chamber of Commerce award and it was a finalist for the Agora Nonprofit of the Year award.

“Counseling among the poor, marginalized and oppressed helps people be in relationship with God and articulate their concerns, not only in the privacy of counseling, but also within the community,” said Sr. Pat.

For information, call 483-6495 or email info@sjfconline.org.