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Renovated Lewiston Convent Would House Women Who Have Survived Trauma

Patty Wight
Klara Tammany in the chapel of the old convent.

LEWISTON, Maine — An old, vacant convent here could have new life as a residential program for women who are survivors of addiction, prostitution and trauma.

A local organization is raising money to model the program after an operation called Thistle Farms in Tennessee. On Thursday, the founder of Thistle Farms will speak at Bates College about her work and how it helps women.

In the nearly 20 years that Becca Stevens has run Thistle Farms in Nashville, she says she has learned that the path that leads women to life on the streets often starts in childhood.

"On average the women that we serve were first raped between the ages of 7 and 11," she says. "And they first hit the streets between the ages of about 14 and 16. So the women that we serve truly did not wind up in the streets or prisons by themselves. It took a whole community to help them get there, so it's always made sense to me that it takes a whole community to help the women come home."

The community that Thistle Farms provides is free housing for two years. Stevens, an Episcopal priest, says the women at Thistle Farms aren't considered clients — there's no authority in the residences. Instead, the women are empowered by supporting each other.

"Story is an important part of how we understand ourselves and how we heal, and so to take our stories of brokenness, use them as compassion and see them as an asset makes us pretty powerful," she says.

Stevens says Thistle Farms has 23 sister organizations across the country, and she's hoping another one will come from Maine. That's something Klara Tammany hopes for, too — based out of an old convent a few blocks from the heart of downtown Lewiston.

Tammany is executive director of the Center for Wisdom's Women in Lewiston, a drop-in center originally started by nuns that seeks to create a safe space for survivors of trauma to connect.

"I have run the center down the street since the nuns left in 2005, and not a week goes by where don't wish I had housing for someone," she says.

The Center for Wisdom's Women is trying to raise $1 million to renovate the convent to create "Sophia's House" to provide women that opportunity.

Tammany says the convent has been empty for about a decade. It's dusty. There's debris on the floor and peeling wallpaper. But its charm comes through, like in an old staircase.

"A lot of old places you go in and there's fake paneling, or the wood has been painted," she says. "This has never been changed."

On the third floor, Tammany wants to put in six apartments that will provide free, two-year housing for women in recovery. The first floor will be a communal space. In between, on the second floor, will be five permanent apartments. The rent will provide income to sustain the program, and the renters will support the community through mentoring.

"The thing that makes us unique is that we tend to each other in community and tend to the inner spirit of the women who come," she says. "Which is a whole added piece that is often ignored."

Bethanie Bernard says that approach has made a difference for her. She started coming to the Center for Wisdom's Women last spring.

"I was going through a hard time," she says. "Didn't have many friends or people I could trust."

Bernard says she's shy and used to isolate herself. But she instantly felt welcome. And a few weeks ago she started volunteering at the front desk.

"Because I am so shy, that is not something I would have even pictured doing," she says. "And this place has just given me a lot of self-esteem and confidence that I can be at the front desk, greeting people, helping people. So this place has done a lot for me."

Tammany says she also plans to include a job skills and income component at Sophia's House — also borrowed from the Thistle Farms model — in which women make and sell natural beauty products.

"The karma of this building is right," she says. "And it says something. It was built for women. We need to put women back in it."

Her goal is raise a million dollars within a year, and open by 2019.

Becca Stevens from Thistle Farms will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Bates.