Larry LaRue: Catherine Place gives women space to find strength in each other

Staff writerMarch 24, 2014 

When the house in the Hilltop was given to the Sisters of St. Dominic in 2000, one of the first things Peg Murphy heard was “those nuns are going to ruin the neighborhood.”

“People were afraid we were going to open a women’s shelter, that drug addicts would be hanging out or living here,” Murphy said. “I told them, ‘No one is going to live here. This will be a place to empower women.’”

And for the past 14 years, the house — named Catherine Place in honor of Catherine of Siena, the 14th century Dominican — has been just that.

Last year alone, more than 1,400 women stepped through the door of the unmarked house on Eighth Street. For each, the reason differed.

Though Dominican nuns founded it, from the beginning it was an independent nonprofit organization.

“We don’t ask what your faith is,” executive director Judy Mladineo said. “Race doesn’t matter, either. This is about love, presence and safety.”

In short, it’s a place where women enduring abuse, loss, hard times or loneliness can come and tell their story — and where someone is always willing to listen.

“We’re therapeutic without offering therapy,” Mladineo said with a laugh. “We talk one on one with many women; others join a women’s circle group we offer. We’re a community resource, working in conjunction with many other wonderful organizations in this county.

“Agencies may refer someone to us; we refer women to other resources that can help them with specific issues like housing and food. Many of the women who come here have been through hell, and we will not add to that,” she said.

“What they won’t find here is someone telling them what to do.”

The days and evenings at Catherine Place are filled with events, from advocacy groups to healing workshops to art classes. A converted attic offers quiet relaxation and reflection.

There are regularly scheduled spirit circles, where women meet and talk about whatever subjects arise.

“We’ve had women from city hall, from women’s shelters take part,” Murphy said. “They may not say where they’re from or what they do, but they add to the discussion. We’re all there to support one another any way we can.”

When a Latina group came forward years ago, Catherine Place offered space for Juntas in Transition, a Spanish-speaking support group that now meets regularly there.

True to the original promise, no one lives in the house — although Murphy, 80, sometimes naps in a second-floor office rocking chair during the day.

Born in Ireland in a family of eight, two of her sisters — Mary Pat and Nora — joined the Dominicans and came to America to be educated. Seven years later, at the “old age” of 24, Peg Murphy joined them.

Sister Mary Pat, who is Murphy’s twin, lives in Tacoma, where she’s politically active in issues from immigration to human trafficking.

Sister Nora is in Mexico, teaching.

Sister Peg Murphy did her time teaching, too. She also spent years as a pastoral associate. She wore the all-white habit until 1967.

When the idea of Catherine Place took shape in the late ’90s, she was named its first executive director — an honor that mortified her.

“I was afraid that if it failed, they’d blame me,” she said.

The beginning found volunteers from throughout the community — from Dominican nuns to realtors — cleaning, then reconditioning the home. Shag carpet came out. Every room was painted. The unfinished attic was walled in and put to use.

Then they opened for business.

“Some women just want to talk, some want to learn, some are looking for ways to change their lives,” Mladineo said. “We’re not a crisis center. Usually, we deal with women who have been through a crisis.”

Mladineo earned degrees in business and counseling. She married husband Jeff nearly 20 years ago and settled in Tacoma.

One day, after hearing from friends about Catherine Place, Mladineo walked in the front door.

“I was greeted like I was expected, like it was wonderful I’d arrived,” she said. “I remember leaving that day thinking, ‘I’m going to work there, even if it’s only as a volunteer.’”

When she and Murphy sat down in 2004 over a kitchen table, they talked for two hours. By early 2005, Mladineo had succeeded the nun as executive director.

“I think she was looking for a spiritual feminist who was good at business and could do a little counseling,” Mladineo said.

Murphy became the director emerita, with the thought of slowing down.

“We’re lucky if we can get her to take one day off a week,” Mladineo said.

Murphy still loves Catherine Place, in concept and reality. She loves being in the company of strong women finding strength in one another.

“This house isn’t about religion, it’s about spirituality,” she said. “It’s what we envisioned when it began, and more.”

Catherine Place

Where: 923 South Eighth St.

How to reach them: 253-572-3547 or online at www.catherineplace.org

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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