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Renovated home opens to women in transition; Officials hope story of mother of Methodism will inspire residents


A newly renovated facility offering transitional housing for homeless women also offers inspiration from the story of the woman for whom it is named -- Susanna Annesley Wesley (1669-1742), whose son John founded Methodism.

The woman who is often called the mother of Methodism had a difficult life, facing problems many women still face. Today she is admired for her courage, sense of purpose and individuality.

Officials in Baltimore hope her story will inspire the five women and two children who this week began moving into the newly named Susanna Wesley House at 609 Park Ave. in Mount Vernon.

"She knew poverty very well," according to a Methodist sketch of her life, although she was an educated woman who spoke French, Greek and Latin, wrote extensively and was conversant with the day's religious and political issues.

The youngest of 25 children, Susanna had 19 children in 21 years. Nine of them lived to adulthood. At one point, after an argument, her minister husband Samuel abandoned her for a year. He also spent time in debtors' prison.

Only one of their seven daughters had a happy marriage. Fire once destroyed the couples' writings and other possessions. Susanna had to scramble to feed her children. She became a penniless widow when Samuel died.

"She's a role model at a time when there are few heroines," says Jonna-Lynn K. Mandelbaum, executive director of Wesley House. "She was open-minded, stuck to her guns, was highly disciplined and methodical."

"Methodist," or being methodical, was a term of derision used by some opponents of early Methodism, says Mandelbaum. But the founders' behavior might help the women in their refuge near the Maryland Historical Society.

Wesley House is a step up from an emergency shelter. It was designed as transitional housing, offering lodging for up to two years to mothers and single women. The building was renovated after a 1993 tragedy, when a boarder set a fire that killed three other women living in what was known then as Park Avenue Lodge.

The deceased boarders included clients of Associated Catholic Charities, which was renting space in the Methodist-owned building for clients of My Sister's Place, a Catholic Charities service for homeless women.

The three-story house is accepting by referral up to 15 women and 10 children (girls ages 5-17, boys ages 5-12) in a residential program that could put the women on a path to independent living.

All applicants undergo an initial drug screening and random drug testing. Some boarders will be recovering substance abusers.

During the day, the women -- mothers or single -- must be out of the house working, training for jobs or going to school. They pay a quarter of their earnings or what they can afford. They clean their rooms and hallways and do other chores. In group meetings, they discuss common problems and hear outside speakers. There is a firm schedule for breakfast and dinner and a 10 p.m. curfew.

Unlike some other shelters, which separate mothers and children, the children of these women will live with them when they are not in school. A key feature of the building is Susanna's Kids Room, a second-floor study and play room supervised by Evelyn Nelson, coordinator of children's activities -- including homework. Donors have given books, puzzles and games; other volunteers have donated time and skills in renovations. One contributor, Guy Jones, painted a mural on the ground floor laced with names of volunteers.

"We're hoping the reading, writing and games can improve the children's grades and give them a broader look at life," Nelson says.

A Bible is in every room, but religion is not pressed on the women. Along the way, however, they might learn about Susanna's sons John (1703-91) and Charles, (1707-1788), who is almost as famous. Charles wrote 5,500 hymns and was the English champion in that field.

Mandelbaum, a Methodist, is amused that many of Charles' melodies were old English bar tunes and that the brick exterior of the Susanna Wesley House is painted in "tavern red." Methodism is known for abstinence and moderation.

The Methodists bought the house and an adjoining one at 607 Park Ave. in 1920 for needy women and first called the shelter Wo-Ho-Mis Lodge. It has served continuously under different names as a Methodist home for needy women ever since.

The 1993 fire was financially devastating to the Methodist Women, who say they were forgotten by donors responding to media accounts of the fire that referred to "My Sister's Place Lodge" and mentioned the connection with Catholic Charities.

Hired a year ago, Mandelbaum, 52, brings varied experience to her work -- she was a Methodist missionary in Africa, pediatric nurse practitioner, nursing educator and international health consultant to the Philippines and other foreign governments.

She acknowledges she didn't know exactly what she was facing, but fund raising has become a major task. The project accepts no government money, but the church has raised more than $112,000, partly for plumbing, masonry and wiring renovations.

From the two 150-year-old houses, Mandelbaum sold three pairs of marble fireplaces for $20,000, two paintings for $14,000, sterling silver for $5,000, gas jet chandeliers for $8,000 and other items. Such curiosities were deemed impractical.

The church is seeking funds to support the house's projected $250,000 annual operating budget, which includes a staff of seven. "We work well together as a team of Clydesdale horses -- there's always a lead horse, but you don't know who it is," says Mandelbaum.

The adjacent building, connected by a passageway, was used to house women until 1995. It will need repairs and funding before it can be turned into suites, doubling the capacity of the home. That is several years away.

"How well the women do here depends on them; the support will be here," says Doris Gaither, administrative assistant.

"But when they get a look at Susanna Wesley, it will motivate them."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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