How to Open a House of Hospitality

Stanley Vishnewski’s classic 1965 article in The Catholic Worker brims with advice gleaned from a lifetime in the Catholic Worker Movement. Highly recommended reading for anyone thinking of opening a house of hospitality today.


We are indeed happy to know that more and more people are thinking in terms of hospitality in order to take care of the poor and the unfortunate—those who are broken in body and soul. The works of mercy are sorely needed in these troubled times and a House of Hospitality run along correct Christian principles can become an effective center of rich Christian life. It is the dream of the Catholic Worker that a hospice will be part of every Catholic parish in the world.

A House of Hospitality is not just a place where the poor come to be fed and to receive emergency treatment at a personal sacrifice by its staff. A hospice should be a cell of Christian living that seeks to give the world an example of what the full Christian life is.

To the rich it would provide the opportunity of winning heaven by serving Christ in His poor. The poor would then come to realize the great dignity of their lot and would not strive for riches, but for holiness. The rich would become poor and the poor would become holy.

A House of Hospitality cannot remain silent and passive in the face of the great injustices of the present capitalistic system. A House of Hospitality — and by this I mean the staff and guests — will try to create a new social order within the framework of the present system. They will do all that lies within their power to bring about a social order In harmony with the Gospels.

It is true that there will be a multiplicity of problems (as there will be human beings) in the operating of a hospice, but rarely will they be the problems that people tend to bring up as an excuse not to begin.

Fortunately, there is always a small core of dedicated persons who refuse to become discouraged. The thought of the difficulties to be met seems to imbue them with the courage to start.

The next problem is where to begin. The logical place is in the most poor and most run down district of your community. It ia always good to get a house with a store front. It must be (if the laws allow) a place where people can be given shelter for as long as they wish to stay. No arbitrary timelimit must be placed on this phase of hospitality. No one would ever tell a rich man or a king to leave his home — the poor are the Ambassadors of God. Sometimes there is just enough money for a month’s rent. But the workers go ahead and rent the place. They don’t let the lack of money stand in their way. They know that if God tends the poor he will also send the means. The Lithuanians have a saying: Ged who gave the teeth will provide the bread.

Having rented a store or a house the people now go ahead with their plans for operating. They get their friends to come down and clean the plaoe. It is important to try and get a cheery, homelike atmosphere, with pictures on the walls, books and papers. When the place is ready and clean, an appeal is sent out to all interested persons for gifts of bedding, furniture, clothing and food. It is surprising how this stuff does come in. Most people have an extra cup or dish that they can spare for a hospice. Some of them volunteer to give a small sum of money each payday for the upkeep of the place. Others volunteer their time.

It does not take long for the poor to come. This is where the real test begins. For the poor are not a thankful lot. They are very suspicious—and who can blame them! Have you ever been on the receiving end of “charity” administered by efficient social workers? Don’t expect any gratitude for the work that you are doing. The work is being done for the love of Christ and not for a material reward. No one could stick long to this type of work if the love of Christ was not his primary motive.

But it is true to say that after a while some of the original group get discouraged. They see no results and begin to ask: Why should we be wasting our time in taking care of a bunch of bums who do nothing to help themselves? Perhaps they feel hurt because one of the men they have been helping turns out to be a thief and steals their coats and cloaks. Or it may be that there is no end to the drinking around the place.

As a result of this discouragement many of the best workers quit and go elsewhere. There are those who stick in spite of the troubles, and after a period of crisis the house begins to function more smoothly. But there will always be crises of sickness and death in a hospice.

Some Suggestions

The hospice could have some of the following departments; that is, If there were enough dedicated persons on the staff:

  • An unemployment bureau,
  • A craft shop,
  • A washing machine,
  • A shower room,
  • A clinic,
  • Meeting rooms,
  • A good circulating library,
  • A mimeograph machine.

Of course, not every hospice haa the departments that I have listed. Each House of Hospitality has its own problems and finds its own method of running things. Every Catholic Worker house is autonomous, but they are all united in practicing the Works of Mercy.

But do try and give lodging to as many people as the House is able to accommodate. It is important to have a family spirit about the place. Do your best to avoid an institutional atmosphere. The staff and the guests should eat at the same table, and there should be occasional spiritual reading at meals. But no person should be forced to participate in religious observances.

It Is good to keep the hospice small and to maintain a family atmosphere. Our present hospice in New York City is much too big. We wish that we had several smaller places. But it is good to keep the ideal in mind, even though circumstances will often force one to overcrowd.

You will just have to learn to love people to folly—to forgive them over and over again. But above all, don’t exploit the poor who come seeking aid. Far better that they take advantage of us than that we take advantage of them. But you will find that many of the men will take over the running of the House and do an excellent job. They must be made to feel part of the family. At first, they will be suspicious and will quickly sense if you are not sincere. But If treated with love and respect, they will respond. St. John of the Cross said that if you put love where there ia no love then you will find love.

The staff members (the voluntary poor who live with the involuntary poor) must seek to advance in sanctity. They must get to daily Mass and to Communion, if possible. It would be good to have Compline in the evening ae well as the Rosary. It would be ideal to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament and to find time for spiritual reading. Read the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, Bl. John Bosco, St. Martin de Porres, and the other saints who were interested in social reform. It will help you from getting discouraged. But above all never forget that you are the servants of the poor and that they are your masters.

Stanley Vishnewski (June 2, 1916—November 14, 1979) joined the New York Catholic Worker community straight out of high school in 1934 and remained until his death from a heart attack in 1979, with brief periods away to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps and to edit a diocesan newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In her remembrance of him, Dorothy Day wrote: “The first issue of The Catholic Worker had come out – a few thousand copies. Stanley’s version of our meeting was that he had met this ‘little, old lady’ (I was in my mid-thirties) carrying a typewriter and with knightly gallantry, had offered to carry my burden. That was the beginning of a long association.”

Cover: Before a roundtable discussion at Bethany House (Winona, Minnesota).

Special thanks to the The Catholic News Archive for the text of this article.

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