St. Paul Catholic hosts Nigerian nuns, helps human trafficking survivors

St. Paul Catholic hosts Nigerian nuns, helps human trafficking survivors
Sister Bridget, Sister Rosaline, Sister Faith, Sister Janet, Eileen Smith (St. Paul’s lead sacristan) and Father Leonard Chuwa (St. Paul’s Parochial Vicar) celebrate one of the sisters’ birthday

St. Paul Catholic Church and School agreeing to host four nuns from Nigeria and provide them living quarters on the third floor of the church’s parish building feels like life coming full circle, according to Church Business Manager Quintin Kendal, church business manager. That they are hosting them beginning in 2023 when the church is celebrating its 100th anniversary is serendipitous.

The nuns are being sponsored by The Avodah Collective in Englewood, Colorado. Initially, they are worked in a two-year agreement with Jacksonville-based Her Song, a nonprofit founded by the Tim Tebow Foundation. Two of the nuns have since traveled to Tennessee to help Her Song start a new program there.

Avodah restores and reintegrates women survivors of sex-trafficking. It trains Catholic religious sisters from five Catholic religious orders in trauma-informed care and helps find places throughout the country where they can fill out their vocation.

“We understand the background and the needs of the sisters to make their assignment additive to their vocational experience,” said Alexandra Tilton, Avodah’s director of operations. “St. Paul gave the sisters such a warm welcome and has given them such great support. It’s been a great blessing.”

Avodah worked with Her Song to pay for the cost of the renovations needed at St. Paul to house the nuns. Her Song was founded in 2013 in Jacksonville and has opened three residential homes in Northeast Florida and worked with more than 1,900 trafficking victims. It has expanded its survivor care to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio.

St. Paul Catholic Church and School began in 1923 in a building facing Acosta Street that now houses just the school, which serves grades 1-8. Originally, the church was on the first floor. The school for grades 1-7 was on the second floor, and a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph, who were teaching in the school, was on the third floor.

By the 1960s, the parish was employing lay teachers rather than having nuns teach. With no further need for a convent, the third floor was converted into a media room.

Now that the room is rarely used, the parish decided to convert the space back to its original use as a convent to provide housing for the nuns to live together while they are working here in Jacksonville.

When the nuns arrived in Jacksonville in March 2021, the parish was still in the throes of renovating the third floor. Parishioners were asked if they would be willing to have the sisters stay with them until the work was completed.

“We live just a block from the church and have a carriage house, so we were happy to help,” said Anne Spencer. She was a social worker who worked for Rethreaded before having four children with husband Jason: Jude, 6; Aiden, 5; Noah, 3; and Felicity, 1.

Two sisters, Sister Janet and Sister Rosaline, stayed with the Spencers.

“The sisters were able to easily walk back and forth from the church, and they enjoyed having a separate space to live in,” Spencer said.

“Sex trafficking is a very big problem in Jacksonville because we are at the intersection of I-10 and I-95 where there is lots of activity in transporting people. We wanted to do our part to help with the issue.”

“Our kids loved having the sisters with us,” said Spencer’s husband, Jason. “It is an extension of our worship and they’ve become an extension of our family.”

“It was a real blessing for our family to witness their love for Christ in everyday action and the sacrifices they made to come and serve,” Spencer said.

By Karen Rieley
Resident Community News

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