Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer
April 26, 2016 // Local

Following in the footsteps of Father Tom O’Connor

Bonnie Elberson
Freelance Writer

Dottie Carpenter stands before her mentor, Father Tom O’Connor.

FORT WAYNE — In this Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, the Ave Maria House exemplifies a corporal work of mercy, the directive to shelter the homeless. Dubbed the hospitality center, the Ave Maria House on Madison Avenue near St. Mary Mother of God Church in downtown Fort Wayne is a facility where those who are homeless and often in need of companionship may find shelter and comfort.

With the vision of St. Mary’s parishioner Dottie Carpenter and the encouragement of its pastor, the late Father Tom O’Connor, the property was purchased in 2007 by the church under the auspices of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Though the house was dilapidated, its structure was sound, the windows were good and the basement was dry, Carpenter says. And with its proximity to the church and its popular soup kitchen, it seemed the ideal location for the ministry to the homeless she envisioned.

After the project was approved by St. Mary’s Parish Council, Carpenter got to work by securing approval from the city planning commission, asking for volunteers, calling in favors and soliciting donations for the facility. The house was cleaned, necessary repairs were made and everything that was needed “appeared out of nowhere,” she says. The late Bishop John M. D’Arcy blessed the home and by June of 2008 Ave Maria House was “ready to go” and has been in operation ever since.

The hospitality center is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is a beehive of activity with 20 to 40 people dropping in daily for conversation and companionship. Coffee and snacks are always available. Guests may use the phone, the laundry facilities and the shower and obtain personal hygiene products. Internet access allows on-line job searches and applications, and the home’s address may be used to receive mail. Clean, used clothing is often available for those who need it.

But mainly, Ave Maria House provides a home-like shelter where everyone feels safe, everyone is accepted, no one is judged and no questions are asked. They can “leave the street behind,” says Carpenter.

As the home’s director, she is there on a daily basis to oversee activities and handle any issues that may arise. “I have the reputation of being hard-nosed,” says the feisty, red-haired woman.

“Don’t get Dottie mad,” is the mantra shared by the facility’s clients. But she treats everyone with respect and it is repaid to her in spades. “She has a good heart,” declared one client.

Ave Maria House draws assistance from groups like IPFW students, who are slated to give the house a general cleaning as part of their Big Event, a community service project. Scout groups bring baked goods and school groups collect needed items. Women’s groups and church groups of all denominations make donations. Some monies come in from the church’s annual soup kitchen fundraiser and funding is occasionally granted by the St. Mary’s Heritage Fund. In addition, the 150 Club has 95 members who pledge $10 per month to help defray expenses. “People are very generous,” says Carpenter.

There is no paid staff and Carpenter is a volunteer along with the 20-25 like-minded individuals who share her ministry. Additional help is always welcome and anyone who is interested may call her at 260-705-1690 with inquiries. She will interview prospective volunteers to be sure they share her vision. “I want to know their feelings about the situation,” she says. Many of her clients have made poor life decisions, had their share of bad breaks and are down on their luck.

They’re homeless and destitute, “but they’re still our brothers and sisters,” she declares.

In the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the corporal works of mercy give us a guide for how we should treat others, and Dottie Carpenter fully understands and prayerfully carries out Christ’s message.

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