Boston’s Casserly House is a crossroads where Jesuit-minded volunteers bridge across generations not only to serve vulnerable immigrants struggling to build a life in the United States — but also to help one another on their own life journeys.
For nearly a decade, Ignatian Volunteer Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps members have come to Casserly House to teach English, build basic job skills and assist immigrants and refugees on the path to citizenship. In the afternoons, they put at-risk children on more solid academic footing with a neighborhood after-school tutoring program.
In the process, the volunteers learn to walk with one another, each helping the other navigate the waters of their own lives, one at the beginning and the other in the afterword of career and family raising.
In 2014, Anna Ryan was 22 with a newly minted diploma from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. She had decided to spend that year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program placing mostly young adults in social justice and service organizations around the world. But when she arrived in the immigrant-settled neighborhood around Casserly House, she was, she admits, completely out of her element.
“I was very much on an unfolding discernment process and trying to figure out where I saw myself in the world and what vocation meant for me,” says Ryan, now an assistant director of Retreats and Spiritual Life at St. Peter’s University’s campus ministry.
Jim McCarthy, on the other hand, was fully retired from a corporate career and already in his fifth year as an Ignatian Volunteer at Casserly. Personally, his own grown children were forging lives of their own, sometimes making decisions that unsettled or worried him.
Yet it was the gulf of years and experience between them that brought them together, each bringing a perspective that helped support the other in their work at Casserly and also in their personal lives.
“Living with five other women (at the JVC house), I could see very clearly and very early on that I had a unique work environment,” Ryan recalls. “I had support and mentorship and stability in a way that some of them didn’t have.”
For Jim, “the mentoring went two ways,” he says. Younger JVs like Ryan opened his eyes to the millennial culture, what pushes and pulls at them, what influences their decisions. They helped him understand his own children.
“We have a bottomless number of volunteers who come,” says Sr. Nancy Braceland of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, which founded Casserly House in 2000. “It’s not hard to get volunteers; what’s hard is having the right volunteers and people do the right kind of mentoring and build up a team.”
That was what she had in mind when she brought in McCarthy in 2009, a year after she first brought in a JVC volunteer to staff and run the programs. She saw an opportunity for an older volunteer to mentor a younger generation.
“For me, it was important to have someone motivate and help the Jesuit volunteers succeed,” says Sr. Nancy, who retired as director of Casserly this past August. “That’s been a really critical piece of having Ignatians there.”
The intergenerations of volunteers come together at Casserly House, a three-decker structure originally built to house the influx of immigrants coming to work in New England’s burgeoning factories in the early 1900’s. Today the top two floors of the house are occupied by three Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, including Sr. Nancy. Casserly House operates out of the first floor.
Working in tight quarters, the JVs and IVC volunteers (there are two who alternate days) manage the daily challenges and operations. The JV runs the after-school program, while the Ignatian Volunteers coordinate the services for adults.
Together they fill essential staff roles, from recruiting and managing volunteers to guiding operations. IVC volunteers also take on the critical responsibility of strengthening the financial health of Casserly, applying for grants and maintaining and sustaining relationships with funders and supporters.
Despite days that are busy and full, the volunteers never fail to eat lunch together in the small kitchen. It is a time of reflection and sharing and of being present to one another. For McCarthy, who now serves on the House’s advisory board, it was an opportunity to reinforce the Ignatian spirituality of service for his younger cohort.
“We all ate at the kitchen table and very frequently we would have luncheon discussions about how we experienced God during the day,” says McCarthy, who this summer ended his volunteer work with IVC after eight years. “What I was trying to model was the respect and dignity that each person deserves.”
Although Sr. Nancy is no longer the director and McCarthy is no longer an Ignatian Volunteer at the house, that model of support and discernment continues today. JVs and IVC volunteers still work together at Casserly, helping dozens of children with homework and hundreds of immigrants looking to get jobs or achieve citizenship.
“I find it inspiring that young people come out of school and would want to serve and live in community,” says Mary Beth O’Sullivan, an IVC volunteer serving her second year at Casserly House as program manager. “I like to think my role is to affirm what is good and right in what they do.”
“I think we can learn from each other,” she adds.
Editor’s note: See this month’s Reflections Blog post by former Jesuit Volunteer Corps member and current IVC Regional Director Teddy Michel and read how his formative years as a JV helped shape his world view.