Robert Smith spent several months at a transitional center in Austin after he got out of prison on a six-and-a-half-year driving while intoxicated sentence and found out he had cancer. He would clean his surgical wounds in a bathroom stall, and he used a sock stitched closed to cover his eyes and keep light out while sleeping at night. The rumblings of other ex-cons kept him awake, and a film of cigarette smoke held constant in the air.
It wasn’t any way for a sick man to live.
During this time he heard of Mary House from a reverend at the Shivers Cancer Center where he was being treated.
The night he moved in, he felt a wave of relief wash over him.
“I can’t even put in into words,” Smith says. “I just wanted to cry.”
Smith, 60, presses his hands into the rainbow-colored quilt on his small bed at Mary House. The house is quiet. All the guests have left from a Mass honoring St. Juan Diego earlier that evening. Smith says he didn’t end up here by happenstance — there are no coincidences. And he credits Lynn Goodman-Strauss with saving his life.
Goodman-Strauss, 70, founded Mary House 25 years ago. A nonprofit, it provides free housing to the critically ill homeless in Austin by performing some of the Bible’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy: Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick. Comfort the afflicted. Bury the dead.
One of 236 Catholic Worker houses in the world, its model was first adapted by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 in New York City and involves an intimate, community approach to caring for the less fortunate.
In its 25 years, nearly 1,300 people have lived at Mary House, and more than 70 have taken their last breaths in its rooms.
Smith is one of the lucky ones; his cancer is in remission. The prognosis for Tommy Gilbert, 60, is less promising. He has Stage 4 colon cancer. But, in his pain, he remains optimistic.
“We’re going to find a cure,” Gilbert says. “I’m here for some reason.”
Gilbert isn’t sure yet what that is.
Gilbert, Smith and five others, including Goodman-Strauss, live in the duplex on King Edward Place. It’s a maze of hallways and doors and 12 rooms painted bright shades of yellow, green, blue and red. A long dining table runs along the entryway; a cloth on top is checkered with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and lined with plastic. In back, fresh flowers are planted in a box garden. A new room added to the side of the house awaits a second coat of paint.
Mary House will host an anniversary mass Saturday to mark its 25 years in existence. Everyone is invited.
When it first opened in 1991, it was a meager 600-square-foot cottage on Ninth Street that would fit inside the living room where Goodman-Strauss is sitting now. With a half-finished crossword puzzle and yesterday’s mail scattered in front of her, she says its story began long before then.
The birth of a life of service
Born in 1945, the last year of World War II, Goodman-Strauss identifies herself by an era acutely aware of pain and conflict in the world. As a young child, she watched as her brother Joe Goodman was dragged from the family home and placed in a state hospital for what doctors might now diagnose as autism.
“From the age of 25 months on, I knew there were people in this world that didn’t fit,” Goodman-Strauss says.
At age 14, her family lost everything amidst financial struggles. Goodman-Strauss ended up at the home of a friend from church in West Texas. She eventually moved to Austin to study history and foreign languages at the University of Texas before moving to London for several years with her two young sons from her marriage to a physicist.
After her first son was born, Goodman-Strauss — then 21 — pulled Joe Goodman from the mental hospital. She continued to support him off and on through the years as he struggled with alcoholism. He died from related illnesses at 49.
“He was my first best teacher about the world,” Goodman-Strauss says.
She was introduced to the Catholic Worker movement on a visit to New York City in the late 1960s.
“I turned to my husband — I wasn’t a Christian then — and I said, ‘When the children grow up, I’m going to do this work,’” she says.
She converted from Judaism to Catholicism, divorced, moved into the house on Ninth Street and started boiling eggs to bring to the homeless on mornings.
In those early years, Goodman-Strauss was known on the streets as “the egg lady.” Many still refer to her that way.
“She was an institution among the homeless downtown,” Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves & Fishes says. Around the same time, Graham began bringing meals to the streets on trucks. He and Goodman-Strauss intersected many times in 20 years of friendship and work serving the underprivileged.
A house comes to be
Goodman-Strauss stopped serving eggs in 2004. But before then, she began to devote herself more solely to the care of the sick and suffering. She had been asking God for a way to do more when she got a call about a man in New York City, who had moved from Pakistan and was left beaten on the streets with nothing but his six-month work visa.
He moved into Goodman-Strauss’s small house in January 1991. While living there, he taught her about Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
“When you fast, your heart breaks open and you feel compassion for the whole world,” Goodman-Strauss remembers him saying.
It’s the way Goodman-Strauss refers to her life today — as a fast.
“I gave away my home. I gave away my vehicle. I have no income. It was a fast,” she says.
More people moved in through the years. Sometimes they slept on the porch or in a shed out back, sometimes in tents in the yard or broken-down cars people donated to Mary House. Goodman-Strauss started doing hospice work, and they quickly outgrew their 600-square-foot space.
In 2003, Goodman-Strauss heard of the duplex in South Austin, through a woman who donated clothes to Mary House after her mother had died. She had mentioned wanting to sell her mother’s home, so Goodman-Strauss left her with her phone number, and many months passed with no word.
Two days after Goodman-Strauss sold the house on Ninth Street, she got a call about the duplex, asking what she was willing to pay.
The Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless contributed funds. Goodman-Strauss gave $96,000. And they moved in.
Though not directly affiliated with the Catholic Church or the local diocese, Mary House operates according to the principles of the original Catholic Worker movement. Goodman-Strauss accepts no government money, keeps things small and community-driven and has always lived on the property among the people that she serves.
“She gave up a lot in her life in order to carry out the work that she has all this passion around — and a lot of people would never ever do that,” says Dr. Christopher Ziebell, who heads the emergency department at University Medical Center Brackenridge and refers patients to Mary House.
“Lynn is a very lovingly tough human being,” Graham says. “She has a lot of respect for the folks on the streets because of her service — unrelenting. But you’re not going to pull the rug over Lynn Goodman-Strauss’ eyes.”
That seems to be the consensus among most people: Goodman-Strauss is a no-nonsense kind of person.
She has to be that way in her line of work, handling the sick, drug-addicted, malnourished and mistreated — for no financial reward and often little thanks.
“The first thing she told me is if you’re doing this for gratitude or thanks, you’re going to be very disappointed,” says Louise Leahy, 68, a close friend of Goodman-Strauss who moved into the house recently after a stroke and her husband’s passing.
“The second thing she told me was you have to think all of these people are Jesus, no matter how bad they are,” Leahy adds.
“They are Jesus,” Goodman-Strauss says in response, as the two sit at the dining table the day before the mass. “Some of them are Jesus dying on the cross in agony.”
“Sometimes they’re Jesus on crack,” Leahy jokes back.
“Yeah, Jesus on crack sometimes, but they’re still Jesus,” Goodman-Strauss says. “They’re still children of God.”
The woman beneath the mission
Goodman-Strauss is an activist by nature, overtly political, at times loud and boisterous, in her heart of hearts exceedingly gentle. She admits she doesn’t know how to take someone’s blood pressure, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She knows what pain looks like in the eyes and by the way the skin changes color — much the way Erasmo Montalvo, 63, came to her now nearly two years ago.
Montalvo arrived at Mary House Sept. 28, 2014. He worked all his life as a cook. When he got sick with colon cancer, he wasn’t illegible for health insurance. He sold his home, his 2006 Toyota Tundra and two dirt bikes to pay his medical bills. That money only covered the first bill. He was living out of his truck, administering himself chemotherapy, when he learned of Mary House and met Goodman-Strauss.
When he moved in, she gave him a six-page contract with house rules and a curfew.
“You have to be here by 6:30 or be dead,” Goodman-Strauss said.
“That’s jail,” Montalvo replied.
“You can call it anything you want, baby,” she said.
They laugh when they talk about it now, as Montalvo places a lunch of enchiladas he made on the table.
Montalvo’s cancer went into remission December 2014. He graduated from Mary House and moved into a one-bedroom apartment about two miles away. He continues to volunteer with Goodman-Strauss, cooking meals and doing odd jobs.
After lunch, a woman from St. Catherine parish brings in a freshly laundered bed sheet for the house. The day before someone else gave them made-from-scratch soups. Mary House is supported primarily through material and financial donations like these, which were rolling in during the Christmas season – all the things most people don’t want anymore.
Each night at dinner, the residents share what they are grateful for. Even though Goodman-Strauss won’t hear it, most say privately they are grateful to her for saving their lives.
Goodman-Strauss says she doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. She doesn’t know who will take over when she does or what will become of Mary House. Most days, she doesn’t even know where the money will come from to pay next month’s rent. But she doesn’t seem to worry herself with such things.
“God, thank you for the surprises,” she says.
On the Feast of St. Juan Diego, the house is brighter than usual. Lighted candles reflect against the sun-yellow walls. Bishop Danny Garcia changes into purple Advent robes and leads a congregation seated in folding chairs and recliners in a rendition of “Ave Maria,” so sweet that a woman seated near the front door wells up with tears.
As Garcia breaks bread for communion, you can hear Montalvo in the kitchen cooking enchiladas and the sound of Leahy rocking in her chair. Gilbert emerges from a back room where he was resting to sneak out the side door for a smoke.
After everything is put away for the night and the kitchen has been cleaned, Montalvo plants himself in a recliner next to Goodman-Strauss. They watch a little TV before bed. Everything is still and quiet. The only sound left — the echo of a prayer.
Mass of Thanksgiving, celebrating 25 years of Mary House
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, with reception following
Where: St. Ignatius Martyr Church, 126 W. Oltorf St.
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