By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
The fruits of good works multiply and throughout his priesthood, Father Robert J. Baker’s compassion and hard work to the homeless has harvested countless blessings.
One of those gifts was the Our Lady of Hope Community at the St. Vincent de Paul Farm outside of St. Augustine. It is a unique program that helps men and women whose worlds are being destroyed by drugs and alcohol find new life with faith and hope.
In dealing with homeless people, Father Baker realized many were trapped in the hell of substance abuse. In 1991, after a good deal of prayer for the intercession of Our Lady of Hope and through the St. Vincent de Paul society, Father Baker established the farm. The property was purchased by the society, and the program was grounded in a devotion to the Blessed Mother.
“Prayer was at the base of this project, and I guarantee you it wouldn’t have worked without it,” the new Bishop of Charleston said.
In 1992, he met Sister Elvira Petrozzi in Rome. She is an Italian Sister of Charity who had founded 20 farm communities designed to help people work through their addictions with values based on the Catholic faith. Now, 30 farms are located around the world, primarily in Europe. After meeting the priest, Sister Elvira sent representatives to St. Augustine, to get the program going and eventually to take it over.
Once they find their way to the farm, there is no set time frame for a resident. Change is slow, and the men live on the farm for three years. Each person works through his or her addictions differently. The premise is simple — hard work, faith and living in community will set them free from the shackles of drugs. They spend three to four months at one house and then can move on to another.
Joe Benzmiller, a two-and-a-half year resident of the St. Augustine community, describes the farm as a place for people who have gone off the right path to get back on the right path with God.
“Many of the guys who come in are desperate and have no future,” he said. “The community helps change that so they can rediscover life, true life. Drugs are a consequence of other problems.”
Benzmiller said his selfishness led him to drugs. In the last two years, he has learned to think about other people, to help and serve them.
When they arrive at the farm, residents are assigned a guardian angel, one of the other residents who has already lived through it for a few years. They learn from each other. The program has no psychiatrists and no doctors, just a chapel, and other people like them.
At Our Lady of Hope, residents truly reap what they sow. From the food on the table to beds where they lie, they have to grow it, make it and do it themselves.
“We live with divine providence,” said Albino Aragno, director of the community.
“We do everything ourselves only with God’s providence,” the former heroin addict explained. “We learn to live with things and without things. God will provide.”
The St. Augustine farm can handle 20 to 25 men. They work hard, all day long, and their work is a prayer. No television, radio or outside distractions. Just prayer.
“We pray three times a day,” Benzmiller said. “It’s like spiritual food to keep us close to God.”
They learn to interact in community and not as loners. They enjoy what they do.
“When I first got here I thought these guys were crazy, whistling and enjoying what they were doing,” Benzmiller said. “Now I feel the same way.”
Residents are of different faiths. If they arrive without it, they certainly leave with it.
When he was assigned to the Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine, Father Baker visited the farm several times a week providing spiritual direction, guidance, confessions and celebrating Mass.
“Before I learned about Sister Elvira’s program and others like it, I would have felt there was not much hope for people who get into the world of drugs,” the bishop admitted. “I saw so many failures and the struggles. There were people who were dying. I celebrated a couple of funerals for people who were addicted. Then, I saw things happening with Sister’s program. It was not easy or instantaneous, but I saw that anybody can get out of the world of addiction, but there is a price tag on it .”
The price is the regular life of prayer, a disciplined life of work and effort at life in community instead of life in isolation.
“That is true for all of us,” Bishop Baker said. “We can’t single out addicts and say they are any different from the rest of us. Those who have been that route realize the power of God’s grace better than we do once they have turned around. They can provide a stronger Gospel witness because they have experienced the depths.”
The prelate said he is inspired by people who have turned the corner from addiction.
“I hear the most powerful stories of grace come from people who go through that experience of going from darkness to light, from death to life,” he said. “They are the most honest and genuine human beings I have met. I’ve learned a lot from them.”