Rebuilding families

Father Ed Judy House celebrates 10 years

With two black eyes, empty pockets, no place to go and three children, Dawn Struthers walked with her head held low. Her brown hair hung over her face; the abusive husband she escaped made her feel like nothing, she said.

“I always thought life was miserable,” Struthers said. “It was painful. I went through a lot of hell.”

After fleeing more than 10 years of verbal and physical abuse, the 46-year-old mom found the support she needed to realize her dignity at Father Ed Judy House, a long-term shelter for single women in southwest Denver.

“I didn’t recognize it because it got beat out of me,” Struthers said. “I watched what I said. I watched what I did. I always felt like someone was looking over my shoulder.”

Then the staff and counselors introduced Struthers to her self-worth.

“They gave me a brand new me. They introduced me to me,” she said. “Now I have a voice.”

Some 417 mothers and their families have received shelter and on-going support at Father Ed Judy House. This year the Catholic Charities’ shelter is marking 10 years of service to women, many of whom are survivors of domestic violence.

“Their dignity has been trampled upon and beaten down to a pulp,” said Amy Burt, program supervisor. “It’s working with them to help restore that dignity, and to understand it and reclaim it. And a lot of that is through a relationship with them.”

By supporting the moms, the children and their families flourish, Burt added.

The small shelter serves nine families at a time by providing basic needs, classes, case management, counseling and post-shelter support to prevent chronic homelessness.

Mothers can stay as long as needed and enter an alumni program to receive on-going support once they find housing.

“They know we’ll be there in good times and bad,” Burt said.

During a May 8 open house celebrating the shelter’s anniversary, volunteer coordinator Theresa Miller said the best thing they can do is share love with the mothers.

“We know the only solution is love,” Miller said. “It’s the only thing we know how to do.”

Catholic Charities CEO Larry Smith, Father Ed Judy House employees, and mothers and their families attended the open house to share their stories and the fruit bore from the shelter. The mothers were also served a Mother’s Day dinner at the Holy Trinity Center on the St. John Paul II Center campus, which Archbishop Samuel Aquila attended.

Mothers and families from Father Ed Judy House, a shelter for single mothers, were honored at a Mother’s Day dinner hosted by Archbishop Samuel Aquila at the St. John Paul II Center May 10.

Mothers and families from Father Ed Judy House, a shelter for single mothers, were honored at a Mother’s Day dinner hosted by Archbishop Samuel Aquila at the St. John Paul II Center May 10. Photo by Daniel Petty/for Catholic Charities

Struthers said she doesn’t know where she’d be without it.

“If this wasn’t here, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “I don’t know where my kids would be.”

Her journey to Father Ed Judy House began two and a half years ago when she fled her second husband’s abuse. Her father-in-law, who discovered she was being beaten, helped her pack her things and leave.

Struthers said she stayed in a motel with her children and bounced between her family’s home and shelters until she ran out of options.

“I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have money—nothing,” she said.

One friend told her about Father Ed Judy House, three days before she would be out on the streets. She was able to move in the next day.

Struthers was skeptical at first, uncertain of the rules such as getting up by 8 a.m. and completing a chore list. She said she refused to hang pictures on the wall, fearing she and her children would be forced to leave soon.

She said she wouldn’t talk to others and was always on the defensive. Slowly, she began to open up during sessions with a domestic abuse counselor. She learned about her dignity and the importance of setting boundaries with others. She also learned parenting skills and earned the respect of her children.

“My kids have seen a big difference,” she said, “and I get a lot of respect.”

She said the shelter helped build her “from the ground up” after surviving a troubled childhood. She lived in foster homes after her biological mother went to jail for selling drugs to children.

“It’s been a long, hard road, but I see I did the right thing by coming here,” she said. “If Father Ed were here today, I think I would find him and kiss his feet. He had this plan in mind for me and my kids. He wouldn’t know it, but he did.”

Struthers now lives in permanent housing, married her husband Robert in November, and has one grandchild that “lights up my world,” she said.

After living at the house for one year and graduating from its program, Struthers would recommend the place to any mom looking to rebuild her life.

 

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”