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Stillwater Catholic Worker

  “This is all part of a rich and complicated apostolate. It’s  a world of good books, so the bookstores are very important and a great blessing for any town, then you have got the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, then you have got an exceptional  LifeCare Center, a crisis pregnancy center with 7 salaried  employees, superbly equipped.” 
 -  Dr. Thomas Loome -

Just over the St. Croix River from West Central Wisconsin lies the town of Stillwater, MN.  Famous for its touristy antique and book stores, as well as its scenic river view, it seems an unlikely place for a Catholic Worker community.  My recent visit to the “Birthplace of Minnesota” began at Loome Theological Booksellers, the birthplace of this “rich and complicated apostolate.”

This statue of St. Clare of Montefalco (and dog?) greets visitors to Loome Theological Bookstore in Stillwater.  It is one of many statues, icons and even furniture picked up by Dr. Loome in his early travels to convents and monasteries that were disbanding.  Our Lady Queen of Peace House contains a long table still showing the marks of the fabric cutter wheels used by nuns, probably generations ago. 



Loome Theological Booksellers 
 “Saving Western Civilization One Book at a Time”
- Christopher Hagen -


Loome Theological Booksellers is a famous place.  Maybe not to people like you and I, but to people who are serious about books.  Quoting their website: 
"Our bookshop, housed in the beautifully restored Old Swedish Covenant Church in Stillwater, is the largest secondhand dealer of theological books in the world. 

We supply institutional libraries, monastic communities, churches, clergy, scholars, and collectors with a vast array of books in theology, religion, and all related areas.”  
While the website puts the number of books on-site at over 250,000, the number is probably closer to 100,000 -  150,000 now.  Co-owner, Christopher Hagen explains. 


"We are very strong in theology and spirituality books that were written in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, running up to the Second Vatican Council.  And then after the Second Vatican Council there is a lot of fluff that was published and we kind of skip over the 70s . . . a lot of the 80s.  When you get into the 90s again we kind of start getting those types of theology and spirituality books again.”


“It’s not as if we avoid buying books from those eras it’s just that we try to buy books that have enduring spiritual, theological, and scholarly value and there was not much published during the 70s and 80s that meets that criteria.”


Sounds like good news to me!  So we are back in a spiritual upswing?   “Right.” 
Hagen continues, ”Dr. Loome started this business  at a time in the 70s and 80s when all that good theology from the early 20th century and such was being just, to some extent, purged and Dr. Loome was there recognizing these are not books that should just be thrown away, so he gathered them here.  What we are seeing is that there aren’t so many large institutions getting rid of their books anymore.  We are in a phase where, instead, there are lots of small Catholic groups starting up and needing books now.”   
“We took books in the 70s and 80s out of places that were getting rid of them.  Now we are starting to put them back into the Church through other Catholic groups that are starting up, like Franciscan Brothers of Peace.   They need books.  We sell them the books.  So there is an upswing.  We are selling more now rather than buying .”


”That’s on a large scale,” says Hagen.  “On a small scale we are still buying books from priests and professors who are retiring and such, and then selling them again to young priests and professors.”

(photo below:  Christopher Hagen, co-owner, Loome Theological Booksellers and Chestnut Street Books.  Check out his blog.)  

I never got around to climbing the spiral staircase and seeing the area with the really old stuff.  They have some books dating back to the very early 1500s.  Their earliest books include some printed on presses but with those beautiful hand-painted decorative letters beginning each section.  Last year they sold one, The Epistles of St. Bernard, for over $11,000.  When asked how they cared for these books, Hagen stated, ”We don’t care for books in an unusual way.  No special air or glass cases.” Loome’s other co-owner, Andrew Poole, was quoted as saying “We are not preserving books here, we are just selling them.”  The idea is to move them.  This isn’t a museum.  It is very much an active shop. 
I trust that the rare and antiquated books up the staircase do at least have heat and air conditioning, unlike the books on the tightly-packed main floor.  Because of the impracticality of installing a furnace and adding currently non-existent insulation to the building, shoppers are advised to wear their woolies if they visit in December.  Last year, the owners experimented with buying little space heaters with wheels and long extension cords.  Hagen explains, “We would allow people to roll them to the various parts of the bookstore where they were browsing so they could at least have a place to warm their hands before they had to touch the cold books again.”  They have been known to share their hot chocolate with visitors as well.
There was, by the way, a second bookstore called Loome Antiquarian Booksellers which carried rare and antiquarian books of a non-theological nature.  That was sold and a small core of about 20,000 books from there are now housed at Chestnut Street Books in Stillwater.  CSB is also owned by Poole and Hagen.  Dr. Loome sold the men his businesses last year.  He is now “retired” but still serving in an advisory role for them. 
Dr. Loome Arrives
When Dr. Thomas Loome arrived to talk with me he had Catholic Worker houses and not books on his mind.  He blew off the quote from that said,
“King Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed monarch of the first Booktown in the world, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, personally named Stillwater a Booktown at the first annual Stillwater Book Fair held in October, 1995.”  

“That is neither here nor there, “ Loome responds.  “He is a friend of mine and it is kind of a joke.”  The chamber of commerce got excited and put it on their website.  Apparently Dr. Loome got to know "the king" when he was living in Wales.  He travels to Stillwater every few years.  I ask if it stops traffic.  “No.”

There was a burst of publicity aimed at Dr. Loome when Pope Benedict XVI was elected because Loome had studied under Father Ratzinger in Germany during the 1960s and 70s when Loome was getting his Doctorate in Catholic Theology.  “I don’t think about it much. “  Dr. Loome adds.  “He wouldn’t know me.  I was just a young student at the time.  He was a wonderful teacher, but I had many wonderful teachers.  I don’t put him in a special niche.  I am very fond of him.  I attended his Mass when he was a young priest, attended his lectures at seminars, things like that.  But that’s a long time ago.” 
What does Dr. Loome do with his theology degree?  In addition to his bookstore work, he is responsible for adult catechetical instruction at St. Michael’s in Stillwater, MN and St. Patrick’s in Hudson, WI.  He estimates that since he began doing that he has taken 300 – 400 people through the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It takes 50 classes, 90 minutes each, about a year-and-a-half.  I wonder how powerful, even EXPLOSIVE that must be, to have 300 people walking around in one area who actually know well what is in the Catechism!  But then when you see the vibrant Catholic life and response to the needy in Stillwater (keep reading), it starts to make sense.
(photo below:  Dr. Loome, speaking with me at the bookstore.  The woman in the picture, by the way, is Beatrice from Dante's Divine Comedy .)

 A Beginning in Books

Dr. Loome was the first one to start a bookstore here in Stillwater that was reasonably successful and the idea was picked up by several other people.  There are three more small bookstores on Main Street now (hence the name “Booktown”.)
About 20 years ago, Dr. Loome was instrumental in the opening of the St. Croix Valley LifeCare Center (a crisis pregnancy center) at which his wife, Karen, works (more about that later). 

Ten years ago it was decided to open a house of hospitality in the Catholic Worker tradition to provide shelter for some of the women being served at the LifeCare Center who needed a place to stay.  That became Solanus Casey House.   A few years later, Mary Queen of Peace House was added.

A testament to Dr. Loome’s fundraising work and the generosity of the people of Stillwater, both four-bedroom houses were bought without mortgages and donated to St. Michael’s Catholic Church.  

Because of Dorothy Day’s teachings on voluntary poverty, the Catholic Worker community made the decision to not be the owner of the houses.  The houses are run by the Catholic Worker community of Stillwater and the church just handles a minimal amount of bookkeeping.  Because they are technically owned by the church, all donations are tax deductable.  This is unusual for the Catholic Worker Movement which, in general, resists organizational status, governmental help and filling out forms.  But it is working out well for the people of Stillwater. 

Solanus Casey House is currently housing a family of six from southern Sudan and the CW community is helping them to get solidly assimilated into American society.  
They are learning about budgeting, about taking care of a property,  etc.  Dr. Loome calls this approach an experiment, but seems pleased with progress made so far.   The family is living rent-free and putting its money in savings, with the hope of making a down payment on their own house in the future.  In addition, donations have been obtained allowing these Sudanese children to attend the local Catholic school. 
The Stillwater CW has previously housed refugees from Peru, Ukraine and Sudan  -  but not intentionally.  They just take whoever the Lord sends. 
Mary, Queen of Peace House, usually just called “Peace House” is actually closed at the moment.  It is a hospitality house for women and children in need, able to take 2 – 3 women at a time.  The CW community was experiencing some group burn-out and decided to step back for a few months, do some much-needed repairs and cleaning on the house.  A committee was formed to think about what, if anything, they would like to do differently.  At this time, the community is advertising for a new house mother to live in and manage the house.  There is no salary, as with any Catholic Worker position, but room and board are provided.   It is hoped that Peace House will reopen in July of 2009.
Peace House, it is worth mentioning , is not an emergency shelter.   Women are carefully screened before being accepted, and they are given much mentoring and help during their stay to get them solidly back on their feet.  When it reopens, it will have a more focused mission to homeless women who are pregnant or have small children.  
  The Stillwater Catholic Worker

The Stillwater Catholic Worker community is a group of people interested in living the teachings of the Gospel and the Catholic Church in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  Catholic Worker teaching focuses on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which, themselves, originate from Matthew 25:  31-46.  “ . . . as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,  you did it to me”.  

While they welcome anyone of any faith to pray with them, and other church denominations in the Stillwater area have been very generous with their donations, to be a true member of this community you must try to live in fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  And it is about giving of one’s time, personally, instead of depending on the agencies of the church or the government to take care of those in need around us.
In addition, through the years, many in the Stillwater Catholic Worker community have become pacifists, inspired by the writings of Dorothy Day and are committed to the ways of non-violence. 

Dr. Loome is firm in the belief that no Masses should be said at any of the houses.  This is because of the importance he places on the role of the local parish.  Blessed to have two daily Masses available and seven on Sundays between St. Michael and St. Mary parishes, there is no need for that.  Dr. Loome is also grateful for the RCIA programs of the churches which have prepared three past residents of the CW houses for entry into the Catholic Church.

There is no requirement for those living in the houses to be Catholic or to pray with the group.  They do have frequent opportunities, though, to pray with the community.  Tuesday mornings at Peace House there is a prayer meeting for any who wish to attend.  For the past ten years or so, Friday nights have been a special gathering time for the Stillwater Catholic Worker community.  Dr. Loome calls these meetings the glue that holds the community together. 
It begins with a pot-luck dinner, then evening prayers are said from the Magnificat book.  Finally there is a talk or presentation or discussion on a topic of interest to the group, based on Peter Maurin’s idea of “clarification of thought.”  So the focus is on body, mind and soul at Friday evening gatherings. 
While most evenings focus on theology, Karen Loome’s recent talk on wool and sheep was well attended and much enjoyed.  Interested persons are very welcome to attend these gatherings whether or not they are Catholic. 
The Friday night meeting location rotates between not only the two purchased houses, but also among several other homes in which members of the community have welcomed those in need.  These homes have all taken on names such as the The Loomes’ house, which is named after St. Francis.  There is also Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta House, St. Agnes House and Julian of Norwich Farm. The latter is actually across the river in Wisconsin.  One of the Catholic Worker families even included a “mother-in-law “ apartment over the garage when they built their new house, specifically for sheltering the homeless.  Two of these family houses have seven of their own children each.  
Speaking about the Catholic Worker Movement Dr. Loome tells me,  
“It proposes a philosophy of life that is easy to assimilate by any Catholic - the well to do, the poor.  Dorothy Day is a woman for all seasons, for all people and I fell in love with her 34 years ago and was convinced that she had the most coherent way of life, easily adaptable, at some cost, by anybody interested .” 
Stillwater, MN (below)
After saying good-bye to Dr. Loome I headed to the St. Croix Valley LifeCare Center (SCVLCC) to learn more. 

I was greeted by Office Manager, Deb Beemer, who explained that the center is an affiliate of Total LifeCare Centers, based in Minnesota.  It is not a Catholic Worker entity although a few of its staff people are involved in the CW community.  While SCVLCC operated for several years on generous donations from a variety of churches and individuals alone, it now receives some funding from a State of Minnesota Positive Alternatives Act grant to help in its work. 

SCVLCC ‘s mission is to serve the St. Croix Valley, but people do come from well into Wisconsin.  There is no charge for any of their services, which include STD testing, ultrasounds and general problem solving.  The loving support is free too. 
“The St. Croix Valley LifeCare Center exists so that no woman in the St. Croix Valley area ever feels that abortion is her only choice,” Beemer tells me.  “We advise them that you don’t have to have an abortion.  There are often people who feel that they have to for whatever reason.  We are here to cut down all those things that they say are problems.  If its finances, we have financial help.  We have places to live.  We have all that stuff.  And our biggest goal is to make them feel loved.  They need to have that love and trust in order for us to be an effective face of God.”
Karen Loome (an R.N.) works at the center and is in charge of anything medical.  Many women take advantage of the free STD testing.  Instead of waiting until there is an unwanted pregnancy, they are asked how they feel about abortion early.  “That is the time to make a decision, not when you are in the middle of a crisis,” Beemer says. “Most people who come in only for the STD test  think abortion is horrifying . . . BUT . . .”
They offer pregnancy testing and ultrasound and, as you would expect, there are lots of baby fetus models floating around the place.
Interestingly, unlike many Protestant-run crisis pregnancy centers, Beemer tells me, “We never, ever, ever promote birth control.”  Other denominations donate generously to the LifeCare Center but it is Catholic to the core.  “Birth control and abortion go very hand-in-hand unfortunately, because it provides an attitude of disconnecting the act of sex with children.” 
The mentoring service is extensive.  There is help, as needed, with housing, transportation, utilities, budgeting, substance abuse, education and employment . .  you name it.  I skeptically asked how good they were at successfully meeting those needs.  Her response? 

"Really, really, really good.”

After a baby is born, the mother is encouraged to stay in touch with the center.  Free baby clothes and items are offered until his or her second birthday.  Unmet needs at that time are referred on to other agencies in the community.

In closing, Beemer shared a story of some parents who brought their pregnant 16 year old, in her late first trimester, to SCVLCC thinking it was an abortion clinic.  “They were 100% convinced that she HAD to have an abortion.”  The girl was just going along with their wishes.   

Instead of receiving an abortion, the girl got a free ultrasound and the parents spent some time talking to Beemer.  Thirty minutes later, hearts had been changed.  The mom excitedly exclaimed, “I’m a GRANDMOTHER!” 

Beemer tells me that it hasn’t been easy for them, but the baby was born into a family that has greeted it with much happiness and love.

  A Rich and Complicated Apostolate


In spite of his strong role in the forming of all this, Dr. Loome is confident that it will be able to continue after he is no longer able to be of help with it.  The LifeCare Center is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization with its own board of directors.  The houses of hospitality are paid for and well-supported by the community.  I guess that is what happens when you teach 300 people the Catechism!
June, 2009