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Saint Martha’s partners with priests to encourage conversation, resource sharing about domestic violence

Talking about domestic violence in church settings is the first step, executive director says

Saint Martha’s is collaborating with parishes throughout the archdiocese in a new way to encourage conversations about domestic violence.

Saint Martha’s, a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis that provides shelter, resources and care for women and children experiencing domestic violence, has developed “Toward Healing: A manual for supporting women and ending domestic violence” as a guide for priests and others in parishes.

The manual begins with educational information, including what domestic violence is, types of abuse and potential obstacles to leaving abusive relationships.

It also includes things to do or say — and things not to do or say — when helping a victim of domestic violence or speaking with an abuser; resources about leaving abusive relationships, including guidance on safety planning; and pastoral resources including prayers for the faithful and a sample homily addressing domestic violence.

The Saint Martha’s team drew inspiration from the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Domestic Violence Outreach while developing the manual, said executive director Jessica Woolbright. She recalled a conversation with a Chicago priest, who said that he often hears fellow priests say that women don’t come to them asking for help.

“His first question to them is: How often are you talking about (domestic violence)? Because if you’re not talking about it in the normal course of Sundays and ministries and as a Church community, women aren’t going to think it’s safe and OK to come to you,” Woolbright said.

“His idea was the minute you start talking about it, people will reach out. So I think the first thing is talking about it, having a petition, having a homily, whatever it might be — having a bulletin announcement about domestic violence, even if it’s nothing more than saying Saint Martha’s is available,” she continued. “I really believe that violence thrives in silence, so when we bring it out and start talking about it, we can increase awareness and access to resources for everybody.”

A copy of the manual has been sent to every parish in the archdiocese, along with a stack of cards listing domestic violence resources in each county and Saint Martha’s prayer cards. Also included are stickers with a simple message and Saint Martha’s contact information, which each parish is asked to place on stall doors or mirrors in the church restrooms.

“Anything we can do to show somebody that you’re not alone,” Woolbright said. “If this was only happening to you, we wouldn’t have to put stickers on the back of bathroom doors. It’s happening everywhere.”

In a letter to priests sent with the manuals, Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski encouraged them to make use of the materials to educate themselves about domestic violence and the resources available, noting that reports of domestic violence cases in the state of Missouri have tripled since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

“As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have forcefully written, ‘As pastors of the Catholic Church in the United States, we state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form — physical, sexual, psychological or verbal — is sinful; often it is a crime as well,’” Archbishop Rozanski wrote. “It is crucial that we as ministers of the Gospel of Christ educate ourselves on patterns of behavior that run contrary to the dignity of human beings made in the image and likeness of God.”

Deacon Jorge Perez, coordinator of the archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry and deacon at All Saints Parish in St. Peters, was excited to learn of the resources being shared. He recently organized a fall day of recollection focusing on healthy family relationships, including conversations about domestic violence.

“It seems to be taboo to talk about these kinds of things,” Deacon Perez said. “But now that we’ve exposed that, and we recognized that, we admitted it, we named it, the resources will be able to continue to help our community.”

Through his ministry at All Saints and elsewhere, he’s seen how domestic violence can — and does — happen anywhere, he said. “I hope people can see (parishes) as a place where they can bring up their situation and they can find someone they trust to talk to, who will listen to them and understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “…And then we’ll have connections with experts in the field to rely on.”

While the manuals were written as a resource for clergy, lay parishioners can help open up conversations about domestic violence too, Woolbright said.

“If Father has a homily or a petition, talk to your friends about it. Talk to your friends about the stickers that you’re seeing. It really is about increasing awareness, and it really is about listening” she said. “It’s not having to have all the answers. It’s not having to be an expert. It’s paying attention when somebody maybe drops a little hint that something is going on, knowing how to connect them with the resource.”

>> Saint Martha’s

Saint Martha’s, a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, has been serving women and children affected by domestic violence for 40 years at its confidential shelter. In 2022, its 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 and 24/7 crisis support.

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