Fr. Matthew Weber, S.C., used to call the mentally disabled men and boys he
works with at the St. Louis Center, in Chelsea, people with special needs. “Now
I call them people with special gifts,” he said. “They have gifts to give to the
Church, to society in general, and to each one of us as individuals.”
St. Louis Center, nestled on 33 acres of forested hills in the little
pastoral town of Chelsea, is home to 65 mentally challenged boys and men ranging
from ages 6 to 40.
The center, with more than 50 staff, is run by the Servants of Charity, a
men’s congregation established by Blessed Louis Guanella in 1908. Fr. Guanella
had in 1881 already founded the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, who run a
number of homes for senior citizens and for the mentally disabled. Locally these
sisters staff Our Lady of Providence, a residential facility in Northville for
developmentally disabled girls and women.
Fr. Weber serves as program director at the St. Louis Center, but is on
temporary leave to complete his master’s degree in counseling at Siena Heights
University this summer.
Opened in September 1961, the original building at the center was a boarding
school that, for nine months of the year, served boys 6 to 16, most of them
But needs changed and most of the current residents are moderately to
severely impaired. “Now we serve them as long as we can,” said Fr. Weber.
The center is a year-round residence offering a multitude of special
activities. Residents attend school or work in the community.
While the center is distinctly Catholic, being Catholic is not a requirement
“Charity has no bounds,” said Fr. Weber. “We are open to people of all faiths
or no faith at all, of all backgrounds, people with families or without
families.” For a few residents, he said, “we are their only family right now.”
Fr. Weber added that most think of charity as a handout, or doing something
good for someone else. “That is part of the picture,” he said. “But charity, we
must see above all, is the love of God the Father. Charity is God. God is
And that’s just what the Guanellians are all about, not just to be a social
agency, but to be a reflection of the Father’s providential love for all people,
and especially for the people most in need. And the Father’s love, explained Fr.
Weber, is shown through the Sacred Heart.
Their motto says it all: In Omnibus Caritas, “In all things, love.”
While working with the mentally handicapped is one of the main apostolates of
the Servants of Charity, it is not the only one. Their 400 priests and brothers
are spread throughout 19 countries and are active in parishes and schools caring
for youth in need, vocational schools, boarding schools for orphans and migrant
children, and homes for the elderly.
Make my day
When the residents of the St. Louis Center are not at work or school, their
days are full of activities, including arts and crafts, field trips to the malls
and movies, religious formation classes, playing sports, and going hiking. There
is even a coffee room for just hanging out.
One of the newest adventures is a trip to the Snoezelen Room, which just
opened at the center in June. It was the dream of Br. Michael Goshorn, S.C., to
develop such a room after seeing one in use at the sister house in Philadelphia.
When he came to the St. Louis Center as assistant administrator last August, he
had the opportunity to put it together.
This is a sensory-perception room whose concept was developed in the ’70s by
health professionals from the Netherlands. Its use now in hospitals is a proven
The room quickly brought smiles to the faces of Tony and Jason, two
Down-syndrome adults, as they submerged themselves in the sea of 9,000
primary-colored plastic balls filling the ball pit.
Soothing ethereal music greets those entering the room. Cloud-painted walls,
swirling projection images, sparkly curtains, a huge bubble tube with changeable
colors, an adult-sized rocking horse, couches, pillows, and soft squishy toys
offer visitors a variety of experiences. In one corner is a tent complete with
sleeping bag just to chill out for a bit.
“The residents can do their own thing here,” said Br. Goshorn. “It’s their
world. They can make decisions. The staff doesn’t lead them, but wherever they
go we join them.”
For the severely mentally handicapped who can’t play sports, he added, this
is something they can do and enjoy.
The $10,000 cost of the room was funded by grant money and by private
And it has already made a difference. “We’ve had some pretty wild behaviors
from some of the residents, and we have brought them in here and watched them go
down like a thermometer,” said Br. Goshorn.
But it’s not just the residents who appreciate the room. “We all like to come
in here,” Fr. Weber confessed.
Paradise on earth
The chapel in the main building was added in the mid-’70s. “This is our
paradise on earth,” said Fr. Weber as he opened the doors of the corner chapel.
“Our founder said every chapel is a paradise on earth.”
Beautiful spiritual paintings by Fr. Germano Pegoraro, S.C., who oversees the
Pious Union of St. Joseph center in Grass Lake, grace the walls of the chapel
and other areas of the center.
The residents and staff decided what would be on the huge stained-glass
windows flanking each side of the chapel. Fr. Joseph Rinaldo, administrator of
the center, asked the kids what they wanted, said Fr. Weber. “Well, they wanted
to have Christmas every day of the year.” The Holy Family at the nativity now
graces one window. The staff requested a depiction of Jesus blessing the
children for the other window.
“We never push the Catholic Faith on the residents who come here, especially
the ones who are non-Catholic,” said Fr. Weber. “But we found out that every one
of them loves to come to chapel. Even the families who are non-Catholic, even
non-Christian, are very much in favor of their sons’ coming to chapel, getting
religious education, and just being spiritually nourished.”
There are two other buildings for adults on the center grounds. Fr. Guanella
Hall was built in 1988 for those requiring more assistance. St. Joseph Hall,
built on a nearby hill in 1984, was made possible by the donation of Mary
Elizabeth Doyle, a widow who lived out her last years there. A small chapel is
at St. Joseph Hall.
A place for Joel
The strong Catholic values and teaching at the center were pluses beyond the
prayers of Joanne Pasienza. She and her husband Peter, parishioners at St. Mary
Magdalen in Brighton where Joanne teaches religious education, never thought
they would have to relinquish the care of their only son, Joel, now 21, to
Joel, the second of their three children, was born with hydrocephalus (water
on the brain), is confined to a wheelchair, and uses some sign language with
The Pasienzas were devoted to their son and had him in special-education
classes. But, when he began exhibiting some aggressive behavior as a teen, they
sought the counsel of their pastor Fr. David Howell, who recommended the St.
“I have a lot of faith and prayed we would find the right place for him,”
said Joanne, a dental hygienist who also writes and illustrates children’s
books. Still, when Joel moved to the center in March 1996, she said, “They had
to pry him off my leg in the hallway. I cried all the way home.”
It wasn’t long, though, before everyone adjusted. “Joel loves it here. Now he
has a job and his own bank account,” said Joanne. He comes home every other
weekend and goes on vacations with the family. “I go to bed at night knowing
Joel is healthy and well cared for,” she added. “I got more than I prayed for.”
Giving to the givers
Of the annual $1.5 million necessary to run the St. Louis Center, about half
comes from state aid, Social Security disability payments, and tuition the
families pay monthly based on their ability. The other half comes from
donations, direct appeal, and fundraising.
The Knights of Columbus have a hall named for them and have been instrumental
in aiding the center. “Without the Knights we probably wouldn’t survive in a lot
of ways,” said Fr. Weber. “The State council as well as dozens of councils
throughout the state give to us each year. The Alhambras, a Catholic group
specifically for serving people with disabilities, also helps out.”
Chelsea Hospital donates space, food and an auctioneer for St. Louis Center’s
fall auction, and there are six golf outings to raise revenue.
The Pasienzas help organize one of these outings, along with the folks at
Lakeland Golf and Country Club in Brighton. Last year they raised nearly
$18,000. “I just can’t do enough for St. Louis Center,” said Joanne. “They’re
kind of like parents, whom you feel you can never do enough for. That’s how I
feel about them.”