27 women, who are either pregnant or with a child under the age of three are provided with shelter, a safe environment, limited on-site child care, women’s health workshops, creative workshops, and support and guidance at Siena House. These women are also assisted in acquiring and maintaining permanent housing after their time there.
Before she began her work at Siena House, Sister Mary served as a High School Equivalency teacher for nine years in the Highbridge area. It was during that time that she became aware of the struggles of young mothers who were trying to complete their education while trying to find a safe place to live. This awareness and a commitment to the homeless made by the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters at their chapter of 1987, led her to found Siena House.
Through the years, several sisters have served with Sister Mary at Siena House while others have supported Siena House with prayers and donations of blankets, sheets, baby items and other toiletries. Currently, Sister Cecilia Byrnes serves as the Assistant Director of Siena House. Sister Lauria Fitzgerald is a Housing Specialist and Sister Maureen Gibbons is the Business Manager.
According to Sister Mary, no two days are ever the same at Siena House.
“With 27 young mothers who are pregnant or have a young baby, there is always a situation needing attention,” she commented .
Siena House has a limited number of rooms available for women and there is rarely a vacancy as the number of homeless families seeking shelter in New York City has increased tremendously. If a women moves out of the Siena House, her room is typically filled the same day.
Sister Mary acknowledged, “One of the hardest things (about working at the Siena House) is the pressure of trying to move our families into suitable, low income housing, of which there is very little.”
A former resident of the Siena House recently reached out to Sister Mary and wrote:
“I am a former resident of Siena House. During 1997, I was pregnant with my son (now 18 years old), and I gave birth to him while I still resided there. I moved out about 6 weeks after I gave birth thanks to all the help I received from you guys. I was able to obtain Section 8 Housing during my stay, which helped me provide a roof over my son's head during difficult times and limited finances.I just read about all the other services and preparedness you now offer your current residents. That is FANTASTIC!
I just wanted to say THANK YOU for taking me in during the most vulnerable time in my life and giving me hope for the future.
I now am the Personal Training Director of a well- known Fitness Club, a homeowner, and a mother of two. It has not been a straight shot for me, but I can't forget where I came from.
Keep doing great things impacting young women's lives ( and subsequently) the lives of their children. I will forever be grateful for all of you!!”
Hearing from former residents is one of the most rewarding aspects of Sister Mary’s work at Siena House.
She said, “One of the best things that happens here is when a former resident comes back to let us know of her accomplishments and gratitude.”
Along with her work at the Siena House, Sister Mary is known internationally for her participation in the Lullaby Project.
In 2013, the Siena House was invited by Carnegie Hall to participate in the Lullaby Project. Although there was initial hesitancy from the mothers about their ability to compose a lullaby for their babies, the individual artists at Carnegie Hall were able to connect with them on a one-on-one basis to encourage them to write a poem, letter or just hopes for their baby. With great sensitivity and gentleness, this resulted in the creation of beautiful music.
Sister Mary noted, “In the midst of all the stress and struggles of our young mothers in choosing to keep their children while living in a shelter, the Lullaby project provided a time for them to cherish their babies and to recognize the beauty and honor of Motherhood. The artists helped the mothers to reach deep within themselves and to create “Something Beautiful” for their children, that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.”
For the past four years, the Siena House has welcomed the Lullaby Project and Sister Mary considers it a blessing to the residents.
“I believe that the Carnegie Hall Lullaby Project is a wonderful example of how gifted men and women can use their musical talents and creativity to make a difference in the lives of parents who are experiencing struggle and as they try to raise their children in an environment of love,” said Sister Mary.
This past year, Sister Mary was honored by the Voices of Faith for her work at Siena House and the Lullaby Project in a ceremony in Rome, Italy.
Even with all of the success that Siena House has experienced under Sister Mary’s leadership, she is still looking for more ways to offer services to benefit the residents.
She remarked, “I would love to see us be able to provide more programs to help our young moms complete their high school education and acquire those skills which will help them to find stable employment opportunities.”
To learn more about Siena House, you can visit their website here.