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Garden ornaments at Saint Martha’s Drop-In Center in south St. Louis County featured the names of victims killed in domestic violence incidents. The drop-in center provides help to women and children impacted by domestic violence, plus resources for their families and friends.
Garden ornaments at Saint Martha’s Drop-In Center in south St. Louis County featured the names of victims killed in domestic violence incidents. The drop-in center provides help to women and children impacted by domestic violence, plus resources for their families and friends.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Saint Martha’s advocates look to increase awareness, address role of guns in domestic violence

Executive director Jessica Woolbright will speak at archdiocesan gun violence summit

Saint Martha’s Drop-In Center is surrounded by tidy landscaping, bright green bushes and flowering plants dotting the perimeter of the white house.

If you take a closer look, you’ll discover that some of the vibrantly colored flowers are actually made of metal; look closer still to see that each one has a small metal tag attached, bearing a name and a date. Each one represents a person who has been killed by domestic violence in the region.

A few times a year, Saint Martha’s staff gathers to read victims’ names and remember them in prayer before placing new flowers in the garden, said Jessica Woolbright, executive director of Saint Martha’s, a ministry of Catholic Charities of St. Louis that serves women and children affected by domestic violence.

“When we did our last reading of (victims’) names, it was on a Monday morning. But by Monday afternoon, we had to add two more,” Woolbright said. “…It makes your heart hurt to see how quickly it’s filled up.”

Woolbright will be one of the featured speakers at the upcoming archdiocesan gun violence summit on July 29. Domestic gun violence is one of many issues that falls under the wide umbrella of gun-related problems affecting the area, she said.

According to the Violence Policy Center, 67 women were murdered by men in Missouri in 2020. This rate is the sixth-highest in the nation; Missouri consistently ranks in the top 10. In homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 78 percent were shot and killed with guns. For homicides in which the victim-to-offender relationship could be identified, 94 percent were murdered by someone they knew, including husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends.

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, access to a firearm makes it five times more likely that an abuser will kill his female victim.

“Guns have always played a role in domestic violence. That part’s not new,” Woolbright said. “What we’re seeing is that in our own state of Missouri, our laws are not catching up with what other states are doing to protect women and children.”

The federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, enacted in 2022, prohibits the purchase and possession of firearms by people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or who are subject to certain protective orders for domestic violence.

Woolbright and Deacon Tyler McClay, director of advocacy at Catholic Charities, are advocating for similar laws in Missouri. The most Missouri courts are empowered to do right now, Woolbright explained, is to order someone who has a full order of protection against them to turn over firearms to a family member or friend.

She recalled attending a court hearing for a woman who asked for her abuser’s guns to be taken away after receiving an order of protection. The man’s father agreed to take possession of the guns, but “I couldn’t help watching this woman who just had tears streaming down her face, because I can promise you that did nothing to make her feel safe,” she said.

Passing any kind of gun restrictions can be a “heavy lift” in Missouri, Woolbright acknowledged, but she’s hopeful that Missouri could follow the suit of other typically conservative states like Alabama in passing legislation to limit gun access for domestic abusers.

“My personal opinion — and I know I’m probably biased — but we are never going to end violence in schools or on the streets until we address violence in the home,” she said.

Breaking the silence

It’s important for Catholics to realize that domestic violence, including gun violence, is not restricted to the areas of the city perhaps most often seen in the news, Woolbright said. That’s one of the reasons why she’s glad that Saint Martha’s Drop-In Center found a home on the campus of Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County.

“We are serving people everywhere. It’s not certain parishes, it’s not certain communities; it’s everywhere,” she said. “To me, this is a pro-life issue, as much as anything else — we have a responsibility and an obligation to protect people.”

Denise Riek has been part of Assumption Parish since the 1960s. As Assumption’s business manager at the time, she helped facilitate the relationship between the parish and Saint Martha’s as the ministry moved in to the little-used building on the parish campus. And after learning about the work that Saint Martha’s does, she decided to get involved herself, now serving on the ministry’s board of directors.

“It just spoke to me. This is what we’re called to do as Catholics,” she said. “It’s a social justice issue.”

Over the past two years, Riek has gained “an awareness of how (domestic violence) permeates our society and how it affects everybody,” she said. Before, she thought “it doesn’t happen here, in 63128. But having the drop-in center here and hearing where people who visit here are coming from, I think it goes to show — it’s everywhere.”

Increasing awareness and conversations about domestic violence and gun violence is an important step toward progress and change, Woolbright said.

“I believe that when people know better, they do better. So the more they learn about the ministry, the more likely they are to get involved. And then at the same time, they’re increasing awareness around domestic violence,” Woolbright said. “Violence thrives in silence, so if we can break that silence as much as possible, we are winning.”

Saint Martha’s

Saint Martha’s, a ministry of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, has been serving women and children affected by domestic violence for 40 years at its confidential shelter. In 2022, the drop-in center opened on the campus of Assumption Parish in south St. Louis County to provide services and support to anyone impacted by domestic violence or seeking resources and information.

The drop-in center is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 4733 Mattis Road. No appointments are necessary, and services are confidential and free of charge. To learn more, visit saintmarthas.org or call (314) 487-2062 for the drop-in center or (314) 533-1313 for the shelter.

Gun violence summit

The Archdiocese of St. Louis will host a one-day summit on gun violence from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski will offer a welcome address, and several leaders on the front lines dealing with gun violence will speak that day. Topics will include gun violence and public health; a theological perspective that shapes a Catholic response to gun violence; victims and victims’ advocates on the trauma inflicted; and breakout sessions on advocacy, schools, children and pastoral care. The afternoon will include workshops to discuss how to address the issue of gun violence through parishes, schools, youth and legislation. For more information and to register, visit www.archstl.org/addressing-gun-violence.

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