As I tumbled downstairs and into the foyer one morning, Sister Gloria followed me out the door and waved until I turned the corner of the street. She had committed to care for young women like me for the rest of her life, providing us with a safe home and spiritual encouragement.
In “Little Rome,” the quiet corner of a breakneck-paced city, religious houses dot the neighborhoods surrounding Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University of America. One such building is Centro Maria Residence, the place two other students and I called home for the summer.
I never would have dreamed of living in a convent if it hadn’t been for Josephine von Dohlen. A fellow junior and D.C. intern, Josephine asked, “Want to live in a convent with me?” The National Journalism Center had accepted our applications for its summer internship program, and, in the thick of the scramble to find affordable living arrangements, I jumped at the idea. We quickly convinced junior Julie Havlak to join.
“It would make for the best story,” Julie said.
We weren’t the first Hillsdale students to find a home there. Trinity Wright ’17 spoke warmly of her time at the residence. In the order of the Religious of Mary Immaculate, the sisters’ mission is to provide a safe home for young women, often students or young professionals. The order established houses all over the world, from Mexico to England to Spain.
The sisters running Centro Maria are all Hispanic, serving the local Hispanic community in Brookland, Washington, D.C. as well as women like us. They welcome women with varied religious backgrounds; When I tentatively confessed I was a Protestant, the sisters didn’t blink.
The residents, from across the U.S. Spain, Italy, Venezuela, all found the same haven: a home filled with love, peace, and laughter. Separated from families — one with a home torn apart by political conflict — the young women returned from days at university or work to Sister Andrea’s warm smile, caring eyes, and her standard greeting, “Hi Chicas!”
“I remember the first week I was there, Sister Andrea knocked on my door one day, at night,” Angela Bell, an intern and resident said. “And I opened the door. And she just let herself in and just sat down. Literally the first word she said to me was ‘You need to make your bed.’ And I was like, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ But then she ended up being really cool.”
Sister Andrea, speaking the most fluent English of the sisters, gave advice, talked about her home in Mexico, and listened to “girl talk,” telling us about the boyfriend she left for her calling.
The priest was saying Mass as I left for work on Saint Anthony’s Day, and the womanly voices floating unobtrusively from the chapel filled the hallway with warmth and peace. A portrait of Vicenta María López i Vicuña, the founder of the order of the Religious of Mary Immaculate, smiled at me from the wall, while I jumped in surprise at the life-sized cut-out of Pope Francis standing near the door. We giggled whenever we saw him, hoping the sisters wouldn’t notice.
That evening, I got off the Metro in time to celebrate with the sisters and the residents of Centro Maria. In the dining room, a Katy Perry song was playing on a laptop.
“She’s beautiful,” Sister Andrea commented at the music video, drawing laughs from the girls.
“The thing that really stuck out to me at that whole event Sister Andrea’s little DJ setup,” Angela recalled. “That was just amazing. I’m pretty sure they played Despacito like three times throughout in the span of an hour. I love that.”
That night we were celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast Day. The kitchen was already buzzing with activity. Girls set four long tables in the dining room with tablecloths covered in a blue, yellow and purple balloon pattern, and a handmade sign wished Sister Antonia, as Saint Anthony’s namesake, a happy day.
The sisters, usually frugal, knew when to splurge. Topping off the dinner with a birthday cake big enough for us all, we nibbled dessert to “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran, and “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles. As we hopped tables to talk with everyone, some girls chatted in two languages, those from Europe, Mexico, and South America switching between their native tongue and English so the American girls would understand.
I came home every night from the whirlwind of the D.C. journalism scene anticipating the peace of Centro Maria. One night, however, I was in for a surprise. Discoball lights flashed from the windows, and Mexican pop music blared from the event hall. Instead of quiet, I learned to expect cookouts and parties.
When the summer drew to a close, I waited for Sister Andrea to finish Mass in the chapel, hoping to make my flight, but equally anxious to tell her goodbye. Her eyes filled with tears, the routine goodbyes that came with her calling still difficult after years of service to God and the girls for whom she prayed and cared.
In the back of the Uber — finally on our way after Andrea insisted the driver help me with my suitcase — I realized I had left behind women who, no matter where I went, or how long I would be gone, would always welcome me with open arms to their home on Jackson Street in a quiet corner of Washington.