Sister Rose Wildenhaus didn’t set out to help create St. Leonard’s Senior Living Community in Dayton, start a preschool, sponsor a GED program, begin a day care or help change the grading culture at St. Mark’s School in Cincinnati, where she was principal for 11 years.
She never expected to oversee a construction company and she certainly didn’t have any idea of co-founding one of Ohio’s largest non-profit developers of affordable housing for low to moderate income people.
“I just took each challenge on as I figured I could,” Sister Rose said, explaining that she simply saw needs and worked to address them one at a time.
Sister Rose and Dayton business executive Richard McBride have been working together on social service activities in Greater Dayton for more than 30 years, but they are best known for creating St. Mary Development, an organization that develops affordable housing for the poor. Founded in 1989, St. Mary has developed more than 2,400 units, including low-income senior apartments, emergency housing and single-family homes.
The two retired from St. Mary last October, but will remain connected with the organization. McBride has been asked to be a consultant while Sister Rose is volunteering as director of volunteers. In her new role, Sister Rose will serve St. Mary residents with programs, food and supplies. Tim Bete has been named St. Mary president/CEO.
Sister Rose met McBride in the early 1980s when they both served on the Cincinnati Archdiocesan Social Action and World Peace Commission. Through that effort, they noticed that redlining was a problem in west Dayton, and that the poor and minorities were being excluded from home ownership.
They eventually teamed up with Precious Blood Sister Jeanette Buehler and Brian Forschner to acquire the former St. Leonard Seminary near Dayton to provide affordable housing for seniors with low to moderate incomes. They opened St. Leonard Center in 1983, with other Precious Blood Sisters helping to build the facility as staff or volunteers. The complex continued to grow and is one of the largest retirement communities in the region.
“I really believe the success of St. Leonard’s and St. Mary is really due to the impact that Sisters have made on staff people, residents and the neighborhoods,” Sister Rose said. “They gave a whole lot without asking.”
By 1989, Sister Rose and McBride were ready to move into other areas of mission and went on a short retreat.
“During that 3-day retreat we felt God was calling us to continue to do housing for the poor, but to do it in the inner city,” Sister Rose said. “A lot of Dayton was falling apart.”
Sister Rose grew up in St. Mary Parish on the city’s east side so she knew the property had an empty school building and a lot of land. Soon McBride and Sister Rose brokered a deal to use the school building as a base for their operations. They named their company after the parish.
The two of them sat in a classroom mapping out plans, writing projects on an old chalkboard. Sister Rose would work on the task list when McBride was busy with his full-time marketing job.
She started a preschool in a nearby building, got a GED program for mothers going in the school building and eventually opened a day care center. Meantime, St. Mary Development began rehabbing houses in the neighborhood for poor seniors. Weekly bingo funded it all.
“I did physical labor,” Sister Rose said. “I painted and stripped walls. I learned how to do a lot of things in construction.”
Her ministry to housing and the poor helped Sister Rose live out her Precious Blood spirituality.
“I always saw Precious Blood spirituality as total giving,” she said. “I think that through my personal life, I’ve inspired people to understand, support, pray and give thanks for what we’ve been able to do. I think people trusted me a whole lot. That was important to our mission.”
In 1993, McBride retired and began working full-time at St. Mary. The first big project came about a year later, when they built Twin Towers Place, a 100-unit apartment building for low-income seniors. The building was funded through state tax credits, which is a primary funding mechanism for St. Mary’s Development. The tax credits are sold to investors, who can apply the value of the credits to federal income tax liability for 10 years.
St. Mary has developed seven apartment buildings and thousands of single-family homes over the last 25 years. All of them for those with low incomes.
“When we sit back now and look at it, it’s just an amazing thing that God has worked through us and we were smart enough in most instances to wait until God told us what to do before we jumped in,” Sister Rose said. “That’s what we hope for the (new leadership) team to understand, to wait for the Lord to tell you. It’s not a business (type of) business. It’s for people, and you have to see what the need is before you jump in.”
- Story by Dave Eck