Volunteer in Mission, Maryann Lajoie
Maryann Lajoie understood that she would plant but not sow. She would put seeds in the ground in the spring in a vacant-lot-turned-community-garden across the street from the former St. Jude School in the Regent Park neighborhood in northeast Detroit. She would weed the garden, water the soil and tend the plants — but she would leave the harvesting to others.
Originally from Michigan, Maryann was one of the 2022-23 Felician Volunteers in Mission (VIM). She began this 10-month commitment in early October, and finished in mid-June. Along with her site partner, Beatriz Muñoz, Maryann committed to a year of volunteer work with the Felician Sisters, in collaboration with Deo Gratias Ministries Detroit and Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The two young women lived in community according to Felician core values for ministry.
Like Maryann, Beatriz has a background that uniquely prepared her for the challenges of living as a Felician Volunteer in Mission. Originally from Mexico, Beatriz immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 11, received a certificate in phlebotomy and then worked in a hospital. Drawing blood for a patient was part of a larger care picture, she realized as she often encountered people dealing with serious illnesses and stress. Beatriz understood that her kindness could make a difference to that person, so she sought to treat her patients with compassion. Similarly, at Deo Gratias, Beatriz knew guests come from a neighborhood plagued with economic and social trouble, poverty and violence. “We just have to be respectful and kind,” Beatriz reflects, about her work with this vulnerable population.
Maryann Lajoie Beatriz Muñoz got to explore up-and-coming Detroit neighborhood shops and restaurants.
Maryann and Beatriz, two young women from different geographic regions and family backgrounds, with different skill sets but similar appreciation for Felician core values, became true partners in working together with Felician Sisters to shape a ministry and a program. Both women enjoyed living in VIM housing, near the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Detroit — just across the Detroit River from Canada. Four days each week, they commuted together to Deo Gratias, spending time cleaning and organizing, serving guests in the café, and helping in the food pantry. On Wednesdays, they worked at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which has for decades offered a meal program in another economically disadvantaged neighborhood in urban Detroit.
Established in 2018 by Sr. Felicity Marie Madigan, Sr. Shelley Marie Jeffrey and Sr. Mary Francis Lewandowski, Deo Gratias provides a ministry of presence through unconditional hospitality to its neighbors. By providing a safe place where guests can gather for refreshments, social interaction, support and help, the sisters strive to make the community safer and happier. They had barely begun the evangelization café when the pandemic struck. At that time, administrators of the nearby St. Jude food pantry decided to close, since many of their volunteers were elderly and at high-risk for Covid. Sr. Felicity and Sr. Shelley jumped in to help by serving the neighborhood curbside. “Within seven weeks we gave out nearly 1,500 bags of food, and cars were wrapped around the building — there was definitely a need for groceries,” Sr. Felicity remembers.
Open for in-person shopping since June 2022, the choice-based food pantry has been serving steadily increasing numbers of households each month — now well over 200 — as the cost of groceries has increased and many families struggle with food insecurity.
“People feel very comfortable coming in here and getting their groceries. They don’t feel like a number. We try to remember their names as best as possible, and it makes a difference.”Sr. Felicity Marie Madigan
Maryann loved days spent helping in the food pantry, which is open each Tuesday and Friday. She spent time one-on-one with the guests, helping them get groceries and making small talk with them. She says, “My days went by really quickly, because it was one guest after another.” Part of her role was finding groceries, and part was simply being present. “If the guests wanted to talk about anything, I just listened,” she explains. “They usually wanted someone to listen more than anything.”
Volunteers appreciate the openness of the café, which is open Monday through Friday — that it is welcoming to everyone, offering snacks, drinks and conversation — all free of charge. Deo Gratias takes care of the needs of those on the margins of society. “If Blessed Mary Angela were living in our times, I’m sure this is what she would be doing,” says Sr. Felicity.
Between shifts in the café and pantry, Maryann and Beatriz busily set things up as Deo Gratias transitioned into “business as usual.” Beatriz liked the variety of work: “Every day was different, so one day we might be cleaning, and the next day we might be in the café,” she notes. These youthful volunteers had a tangible opportunity to build something new in this ministry so recently established.
Along with the garden, the café, and the food pantry, literacy and art programs are beginning to enrich the space, and a caseworker helps guests with social services. Luckily, both young women liked organizing and set up the donation room, linen closet, library and classrooms. In true Felician style, these spaces are spotless and welcoming.
Through October and November, Maryann and Beatriz worked tirelessly to create tutoring rooms in the former convent. In this neighborhood, where the adult literacy rate is only about 50%, the need for learning help is palpable. Each freshly- painted tutoring room is set up with a desk, computer, bookshelf and supplies, and one room even has a smartboard. In September, Deo Gratias partnered with Epiphany Education Center in Detroit to help students with reading and math. Once the rooms were in shape, tutoring began in earnest — and Maryann and Beatriz helped. Sr. Felicity says, “It’s just promoting our services and letting people know what we have here and how we can help.”
Year 1 of the Community Garden: Beatriz Muñoz working in the spinach beds; Sr. Shelley Marie Jeffrey harvesting radishes.
Having worked last summer on an urban farm, Maryann was excited to expand the offerings at the Deo Gratias community garden, according to the needs of the community. For the past few years, gardeners have relied on two small raised beds to produce fresh food for the neighborhood. But through a recent grant, Deo Gratias was able to purchase an empty lot across the street that allowed for a dozen raised vegetable beds. Sr. Shelley reports, “Many of the guests who came to the food pantry gave us ideas of what they would like to see in that garden.” With community input, they planted collard greens, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and herbs. Sr. Felicity adds, “We’d love to eventually teach nutrition classes with the produce and items we have in our food pantry to give people basic cooking skills to make nutritious meals.”
This vision for the future at Deo Gratias is gradually coming to fruition with the help of VIM — and its new Coordinator, Julie Darocha. Julie got to know Maryann and Beatriz by spending time with them, sharing meals and her love of hiking. She comments on their maturity and applauds their growth in the last months of the experience.
Though the commitment of these two young women finished before harvest time, they trust that — as the program and the ministry continue — others will reap what they have sown.
To learn if you or someone you know is a good fit for the Felician Volunteers in Mission opportunity, visit FelicianSistersNA.org/VIM.