In 2007, the Bishops of the State of New Jersey published a “Call to Action” on poverty. As a New Jersey resident, Dominican Sister of Hope Cass McDonnell, OP wondered if they could transform the edict from a written statement to actual action steps toward justice. Sister Cass was on leadership at the time, and she was confronted daily with the reality of an aging congregation. However, in her mind growing older didn’t mean abandoning hope.

“All of us are dealing with older members, but it still feels like God is asking more of us,” Sister Cass says. “I wondered if there’s something that we could be doing together.”

By 2011, Sister Cass had formed a committee. In 2013, the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women opened its doors to serve the women of Passaic by offering them a safe, peaceful, welcoming environment in which to express their needs. Passaic was chosen because of its high poverty rate. Women in Passaic were chosen because of their vulnerability within this population. Since opening its doors, the Center has seen over 8,000 visits from the women of Passaic, who come to the Center for English, quilting and crocheting classes, to use the Rosetta Stone English learning software, to grow fruits and vegetables, and to become connected with community resources to fulfill their needs. Currently, the Center has volunteers from parishes, colleges and six different women’s religious communities, one of whom is Sister Cass.

“We can provide services, but really we step aside and are observers. We’re not here to fix their lives. They can fix their own lives with the support of each other.”

When you approach the Center, you’re met with laughs and chatter. Women studying English guide each other and laugh together when they make mistakes. The wraparound porch is checkered with women sharing stories, commiserating, and, most important, building community.

You might hear one woman offer to take another’s laundry to the laundromat, while another offers to babysit or pick up the groceries. For a community whose struggles range from linguistic to financial, this spirit of helping is the true heart of the Passaic Neighborhood Center.

“It is exciting to see the women taking ownership of their own lives and feeling good about the fact that they’re not alone in this,” Sister Cass says.

This post is part of our Hope Is series to commemorate Hope’s 23rd birthday. Follow along and see all of the posts here.