January 15, 2020
God’s plan is always perfect. Neither the myth of bad luck nor bleak winter weather can delay or demolish what the Lord starts.
Thirteen — an unlucky number according to superstition — was favorable for Ariel Washington, the single mother who received the keys to the Our Towns Habitat for Humanity Pope Francis house in the Norman Park neighborhood in Huntersville, North Carolina.
On March 13, 2013, a Vatican cardinal, who was once a humble Jesuit priest from Argentina, was elected the new Roman Catholic pontiff. That same year, Washington was approved as a Habitat for Humanity homeowner in process. The Pope Francis house that eventually became hers was the thirteenth Habitat house constructed in Norman Park.
“I am so lucky,” said Washington, who was a 23-year-old mother of two at the time.
She had signed her partnership papers with Our Town Habitat for Humanity on July 3, 2013, dreaming she and her children (then ages 2 and 4) might have a home to call their own and begin afresh. The young mother’s new start began just four months after Pope Francis took his seat on the Papal throne in Rome. This pope, dedicated to social justice and mercy for the afflicted and poor — and who chose his name after St. Francis of Assisi, a man of poverty and peace — refused to live in the lavish 16th-century Apostolic Palace. Instead, the humble and very informal Pope Francis decided to live in the modest third-floor suite in the Vatican guesthouse.
From October 2014 to February 2015, the construction of the Habitat house in his honor never slowed or was stopped temporarily due to complications. God’s favor was upon the house on Titan Avenue in Norman Park.
Filled with hope for the future, Washington stood at the front door of her 1,100-square-foot home on February 28 during the dedication beaming with gratitude.
“This is my first home, and it’s truly a blessing,” said Washington.
A Dynamic Build
Jeff Porter, executive director of Our Towns Habitat for Humanity, said being among the 59 Habitat affiliates in the United States to be able to build a Pope Francis house was an honor. “The build was all about excitement, energy and fun. It was one of the first projects for Our Towns after I came on board, and it was a happy time for me … for all of us.”
Porter described the support of the faith community as “tremendous,” adding, “It inspired all our staff, employees and build crews.” St. Mark and St. Therese — two Diocese of Charlotte parishes — came together to provide some of the funds and most of volunteer labor to build the Pope Francis Habitat house.
While parishioners from his church had participated in Habitat builds before and the parish’s Charitable Giving Committee had supported Our Towns in previous years, Father John Putnam, pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church in Huntersville, said this project provided a wonderful chance for the two churches to unite to honor the Holy Father and partner with Habitat to effect a safe, affordable home for a young family. “It was a great opportunity for parishioners to collaborate with non-parishioners in the community to reach a common goal and aid a family in need.”
Beth Zuhosky, ministry coordinator at St. Mark who organized the church’s volunteers, said, “I think Christians see needs where they live and believe they understand, but until believers stand alongside those in need, sit with them and listen, do they really feel it in their spirit. Then, faith in action becomes real to them.”
Putnam added, “I was really impressed with how much the experience inspired both the Habitat workers and all the volunteers. It also was wonderful for me to see the joy on the faces of the family on the day of the house blessing.”
Working side by side, the faith community showed that love is a verb. Father Vince Curtain, pastor of St. Therese in Mooresville, was part of the roof-raising day on the construction site, and some of his parishioners, as well, stewarded their time and talents to be an integral part of the work crew that built the Pope Francis Habitat house.
“It was a dynamic build! There was a huge sense of community and energy with this project,” said Manny Rosado, construction manager with Our Towns Habitat. “My staff was very impressed with the dedication of the church volunteers. Pope Francis is about love in action, and the parishioners were modeling that. It felt like they had been working with us for years.”
He continued, “Everything went very smoothly. It was fall and winter, but we did not have any weather delays. Other houses under construction next to it in Norman Park had delays and unexpected expenses, but not the Pope Francis house.”
Rosado is in his thirteenth year with Our Towns Habitat. The affiliate serves North Mecklenburg and Iredell County, including the towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, Mooresville, Troutman and Statesville. In 27 years, the organization has welcomed more than 350 families into safe and affordable homes. The housing program is funded by donations, grants and sales from three ReStores.
Our Towns has been named an “Affiliate of Distinction” by Habitat for Humanity International. In addition, it has received several awards and many generous grants.
Among the 1,400 Habitat affiliates across the United States, Our Towns is in the top ten for tithing a percentage of their donations to fund home builds in other countries. Since it’s first year, Our Towns Habitat has donated $1.8 million and is recognized as a Sam Mompongo award-winning affiliate.
Prayer of a Martyr for the Poor
Construction began on the Pope Francis Habitat house in Huntersville on October 18, 2014. Just three weeks later, on November 5, Forbes magazine ranked Pope Francis the fourth most powerful person in the world. He became known and beloved as “the people’s pope.” Through the winter, the enthusiasm of the Habitat volunteer crew for the completion of the house paralleled the country’s keenness for the pontiff. Pope Francis’ popularity among U.S. Catholics, non-Catholics and even unbelievers continued to climb.
Washington and her children, Naisyia and Messiah, also became more and more excited for their house to be completed. Working 400 hours of sweat equity, she juggled parenting and working full time at the General Motors Financial office in Huntersville. Her dream of moving from a two-bedroom apartment that cost nearly every dollar she made into a three-bedroom home with a yard for her children kept her going. She also was motivated and sustained by the volunteer parishioners, with whom she hammered and painted, including St. Mark’s Zuhosky and her family, Scott Lagueaux and Bobby Collucci, and St. Therese’s Tom and Gressel O’Regan, to name a few.
“We were all very attached to the project,” said Zuhosky. “St. Mark was very honored and humbled to have been asked to partner with Our Towns on this special house. Once our volunteers met Ariel and spent one day on the work site, they wanted to go back weekly.”
Admitting she hadn’t known a lot of Catholics before she became a Habitat homeowner in process, Washington described everyone with St. Mark and St. Therese as down-to-earth and gracious. “Everyone was so normal and fun. We built a bond, and they became like family.” Washington and her family attend Greater Faith Worship Center in Huntersville.
Rosado said he was impressed by how the volunteers from St. Mark and St. Therese took Washington under their wings. “I witnessed complete, unselfish giving. And Ariel often was overwhelmed by the love they bestowed upon her.”
The 23-year-old also was thrilled to learn new skills and work with the tools on the build site. “My favorite thing was installing the wood floors. I thought it would be so hard, but the pieces fit together like a puzzle — like snap and go — it was amazing!”
The workdays began early and progressed efficiently. As always, construction manager Rosado began with prayer. Every Saturday work session, Rosado shared the words of some of his favorite saints. “I was born and raised Catholic,” said Rosado. “I’ve always admired the writings of Francis of Assisi — who said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.’
He shared these words from a prayer by Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, known as the “Bishop of the Poor” and assassinated March 24, 1980, at the home dedication:
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Interestingly, just three months later on May 22, 2015, Pope Francis beatified Romero as a martyr.
During the pontiff’s U.S. visit in September 2015, Washington and her children followed the news reports and, once again, were reminded of the significance of their home — a new start built on a foundation of grace and love.
“I am so thankful for each and every person who worked on my house, and the care they showed me and my children,” she said.
God’s light continues to radiate from the sunshine yellow home in Norman Park in Huntersville. The newly married Washington is enrolled in college with plans to earn a four-year degree in human resources. She also is excited to walk alongside a co-worker, who now is a homeowner in process with Our Towns Habitat. Washington vows to return to the Habitat work site when the construction on her friend’s home begins … and bless another as she was so richly blessed.