Four young women who had all spent a year doing volunteer work in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods and living with Catholic Sisters founded Sophia Community in 1993. Inspired by the Sisters’ lifestyle, they created their own form of community life.
The women at the center of this story are Kris Funk, Kathy Lenney, Elise O’Connell and Lisa Rademacher. The program that brought them together was the Apostolic Volunteers (AV) program of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, a program started in 1973 by the Catholic religious order to increase the involvement of lay women as the order aged and its recruitment dwindled.
A small town girl from upstate New York, Kris graduated from the University of Notre Dame and moved to Chicago to begin her Apostolic Volunteer year, sharing community with seven Dominican sisters and another AV—Elise—at Saint Basil’s in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. As an AV, she worked with Elise at a family services center in The Back of the Yards neighborhood and ate Turtle Sundaes at Gertie’s ice cream parlor not far away. Deeply in love with community life, she remained at Saint Basil for a second year while she began a two-year stint teaching theology to African American teenage girls and serving as campus minister and community-builder at the Academy of Our Lady, a south side Catholic girls’ high school.
Kathy Lenney had stayed on for a second AV year at Crossroads Community. Elise was living in an apartment on the north side going to school for Social Work.
When Kris talked separately to Elise and Kathy about the idea of forming their own community, both expressed interest. Consequently, they convened a meeting of interested people from their circle at Elise’s apartment. Kris, Elise, Kathy, Meghan, and Beagle attended.
At this time, Lisa was in New York finishing her M.A. “I was talking with Beagle and said that I wanted either to stay in New York and be in a community – I was looking at the Catholic Worker community – or come back to Chicago, wherever I could find meaningful work and a community. Beagle told me that these former volunteers were thinking about starting a community and I thought, ‘Oh, how exciting to be in on the ground floor of a community,’ plus they were former volunteers, so I wrote – this was before email – so I wrote a letter and I sent a paper that I had written about the importance of community as an antidote to the dominant, materialistic isolationist society. I also wrote another letter and maybe there was a phone call or two. They liked what I had to say and thought that I would be a good fit, so I became a part of it.”
Lisa was a Midwest farmer’s daughter from near Madison, Wisconsin, who discovered Rome during a high school choir tour and went back there for a year as a Resident Assistant after finishing her undergraduate studies in music and religious studies at Edgewood College. She then returned to the United States to become an AV. During her AV year, she lived at Epiphany convent in Little Village with eight or nine inter-generational women, mostly Sisters.
During that time, Lisa worked at Epiphany School and church. “I was in the Second Grade classroom part of the day. I also taught Seventh Grade religion. In Seventh Grade religion, we had a lot of interesting experiences, different prayer experiences I shared with them.”
After the AV year, she undertook a Master’s Degree at Maryknoll School of Theology, where her final thesis argued that the path to peace and justice in the world lay through intentional communities.
Elise, Kathy and Kris quickly committed to the idea of forming a community. Beagle was involved, but chose not to live in the community in its first year, instead participating as an auxiliary member.
Lisa committed from New York, having only met the other founders briefly before moving to New York.
Karen Soos, a “consultant” to the initial group, had been one of the directors of the Apostolic Volunteers when Kris, Elise and Kathy went through the program, acting as a mentor and helping them integrate into the Sisters’ communities. So they said to her, “Okay, Karen now we want to do this on our own, what should we keep in mind? What are the questions we might want to be asking?” Karen thought that they had the issues fairly well covered.
What motivated them?
For Kris, there was a sense of wanting to continue to share a meaningful life with other people that involved intentional relationships. “A kind of commitment to one another on some level, to care about one another, a commitment to prioritize one another and to continuing to live more simply, a sense of pooling resource and taking up less physical space in a certain way or having less of a footprint. Sharing meals and life and couches. A commitment to shared reflection and having that sense of spirituality and a place to share it. I remember Elise, who had been living on her own after leaving the AVs, saying she had been missing the sense of all of the parts of her life being connected. It was a certain way to connect all the pieces of life in a meaningful, best way, along with those values that that we were able to live out together.
“I had found community so rich and alive and nourishing. I think the same is true for the others. I think each each of us may have toyed with the idea at different times of joining the Dominican Sisters. That was definitely a question for me at one point, and we had that sense of wanting to do that as laywomen, as people working but also pursuing relationships and other pieces of life outside of a religious order. We were all at different places with our own Catholicism and everyone was in a questioning place around church and what it meant.”
Elise and Kathy were the ones who did the legwork of finding possible living quarters. They signed the lease on 5458 S. Dorchester Ave. in Hyde Park, then they all moved in on 24 June, 1993.