St. Matthew House

By Fr. Ray Velencia

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me”┬ŚMatthew 25:35

The story of St. Matthew House, Columbia, Maryland

On a bright, sunlit Sunday, April 25, 1999, His Beatitude, the Most Blessed THEODOSIUS, Archbishop of Washington, DC, Metropolitan of All America and Canada gathered together with members of his faithful flock, civic, government, and business leaders to dedicate St .Matthew House in Columbia, Maryland.

DESCRIPTION OF THE HOME

One of only a few homes in the country designed specifically for individuals with severe physical disabilities and the only one of its kind in the state of Maryland, St. Matthew House consists of fifteen individual units for residents and a resident manager’s apartment. Each of the residents’ units is 540 square feet and provides the following standard features: one bedroom, living room, bathroom, and a kitchenette. The units are fully equipped to meet the physical and spatial needs of the residents. Wide door passages, specifically designed kitchens with lower cabinets and appliances, grab bars in the bathrooms, and a wheelchair accessible roll-in shower are features in each unit.

The units are evenly distributed over three floors of the 18,500 plus square foot home. Wider hallways, a large community room, and a lounge make up common spaces that are wheelchair accessible. A communal kitchen, dining room, library and computer work areas are also provided for the residents. A hydrotherapy room provides the residents with an opportunity to bathe in a specially designed tub. The tub allows them to receive some help with circulation in their limbs, thus enabling them to remain healthier by lessening the risk of infection and muscular deterioration.

The many windows in St. Matthew House’s large, three-story inner atrium and open spaces provide much natural light throughout the entire home. A front porch as well as open and enclosed patio areas enable the residents to enjoy the fresh air in the outdoors.

All of these special features combine to make St. Matthew House the unique and extraordinary living opportunity for physically disabled adults of low and very low income that they are otherwise unable to find in our state.

The location of St. Matthew House in the fully accessible, barrier-free Kings Contrivance Village Center enables the residents to shop, bank, socialize, and generally carry on the activities of normal life. Howard County’s barrier-free public transportation stops at the Center. All these factors make St. Matthew House’s site an ideal neighborhood for people with physical disabilities.

A VISION

The genesis of St. Matthew House has its roots in a self-professed God-given vision to one of the parishioners of the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, Maria Turley, on Holy and Great Friday, April 29, 1994. In the vision she received, Maria saw in detail the house that God wanted built. Upon sharing this vision with two fellow members, Maria was encouraged to relate her experience to me, her priest. On Tuesday, May 3, I met with Maria at her apartment wherein she disclosed the vision she had received from the Lord to build a home for physically disabled adults who are no longer able to live alone but are not in need of the services of an assisted living facility or a skilled nursing home.

In our discussion Maria, a nurse practitioner with experience in the field of rehabilitation services and a person with multiple sclerosis, pointed out that although private and public agencies in this region continue to develop housing programs for the chronically mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and the frail elderly, there were no existing independent living facilities in our state exclusively for adults with severe physical disabilities. She asked if the parish would be willing to help make the God-given vision she had received a reality. She realized that the parish which held its services in Slayton House, a local community center, its third home since its founding in 1988, had been saving to build a church of its own.

asked Maria to write a two-page concept paper on the vision. I would present it to the Parish Council of Stewards at our upcoming May meeting. We would also discuss it on our overnight annual retreat at the beginning of June. She did. It was presented and discussed by the Council. The Council decided to forward the proposal to the parish for discussion and possible endorsement.

went out and two parish meetings were held in June and August to discuss and decide what we, as a parish family, would do, if anything. On Sunday, August 14, 1994 the parish voted unanimously, with four abstentions, to sponsor the establishment of St. Matthew House. We saw and still see it as a God-given opportunity to serve the least of these in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

THE LORD ARRANGES ALL THINGS

What Maria did not know when she passed on the vision to me and to our parish family was how the Lord had arranged other details in the plan. She did know at the time that I was the Vice-President of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council (CMEC) and a board member of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center & Homeless Shelter in Howard County. The Lord would use these situations in this work.

Earlier in 1994, then Governor William Schaefer through his Housing Secretary, Jacqueline Rogers, brought to the attention of the CMEC Board a state initiative for faith community-sponsored housing. This God-provided connection made the way possible for our first grant in December 1994 of $50,000 from a brand new private Maryland foundation called Start-Up, Inc whose mission it was to help fund start-up costs for faith community-sponsored housing initiatives.

At this time, I was also an active member of Howard County’s Clergy for Social Justice which was convened and chaired by a rabbi with over twenty years experience in Howard County. He kindly made the way clear for my access to Mr. Mark Sissman, the then President of the Enterprise Foundation, a national, nonprofit charitable organization, headquartered in Columbia. The mission of the Enterprise Foundation is to see that all low-income people in the United States have the opportunity for fit and affordable housing, moving them into the mainstream of American life. The Enterprise companies work in more than 150 locations nationally and have helped to provide more than 61,000 houses since 1981. After sharing our God-given vision with Mr. Sissman, Enterprise agreed to become our development consultant on the project.

Additionally, through a local newspaper article on our project, we were put in touch with Community Residents of Arlington, VA. Community Residents, Inc, a private, non-profit agency, has had over 25 years of experience in developing and managing residential properties and supportive programs for persons with disabilities. Upon hearing our dream, Community Residences generously and eagerly joined us in our effort. It became our cosponsor and is the present manager of our home.

These God-created and God-given circumstances, among others, played pivotal roles in helping to get the project off the ground. From this base, we proceeded to raise over $1.5 million in grant funds for the construction of St. Matthew House. The capital grant monies received came from the following sources:

HUD 811 Program (September, 1995) Supportive Housing for Individuals with Disabilities $1,109,100
Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta Sponsored by the Columbia Bank $82,500
The Maryland Affordable Housing Trust $50,000
The France-Merrick Foundations $25,000
The Rouse Company, Corporate Giving $50,000
Howard County Housing Commission $62,100
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Inc. $50,000
Start-Up, Inc. $46,165
The Marion I. & Henry J. Knott Foundation, Inc. $6,660
Owner’s Equity from SMHD, Inc. BGE $2,000

In addition to a $50,000 capital grant contribution, The Rouse Company made the 1.25 acre parcel of land in the Kings Contrivance Village Center in Columbia available to SMHD for a nominal fee of $28,000 as the site for St. Matthew House. Worth noting is that the appraised value of the land is $400,000. Worth repeating, the home’s location in the Village Center enables the residents to continue to be full and participating members of the community, just as it was envisioned.

PARISH PARTICIPATION

Our parish and its parishioners, who number approximately 113 adults, have also played an important role in the formation of St. Matthew House. In addition to the prayers and monetary contributions of the parishioners, five of them sit on the Board of Directors. Two members of our parish community, Ms Kristine Patico, LCSW and Mrs. Janice Theodorakis, PhD, stepped forward to work with the Enterprise Foundation as grant writers and administrators for our project. Their skills and efforts were invaluable to the project’s success.

Activity and interpersonal relations continue between the parishioners and the residents. Parishioners have given furniture and have helped the residents fix up their apartments. The residents, though of many faith backgrounds, loved having their apartments blessed. Some have expressed an interest in Orthodoxy. The parish prepares a meal for the residents once a month. Two families at a time take turns on a rotating schedule. There is also a food pantry for the residents to which parishioners contribute. When any of the residents need to be in the hospital, parishioners are there to visit. Our parish is now finally engaged in the building of our own church, and it will be on the grounds right next to St. Matthew House.

This brief account of the genesis and establishment of St. Matthew House is offered only in the hope that it will inspire you, the reader, to continue to be open to hearing the voice of the Lord, and then having the courage and boldness of faith to follow His instruction and lead in all areas of ministry and service. If nothing else, this testimony serves to demonstrate what can be accomplished when just a few persons commit themselves and their whole hearts to serving the Lord with and in His love as He has shown and called us to do. As can be seen with this project, He calls and directs; it is up to us to respond and follow. The results are truly to His glory!

Fr. Ray Velencia is pastor of St. Matthew Orthodox Church, Columbia, MD