Sarah Center: Outreach, Art, and National Women’s History Month
The Sarah Center is a program of St. Francis Seraph Ministries that was created as a safe place for impoverished women in Cincinnati. It’s been around since the ’80s and has turned into a creative community with the same female and community focus it started with. The Sarah Center is one of four programs of St. Francis Seraph Ministries and one of six nonprofits housed at the newly renovated St. Anthony Center.
The Sarah Center and St. Francis Seraph Ministries collaborated with AlivenArts to bring this year’s #NationalWomensHistoryMonth Festival to life. Sarah Center is also this year’s beneficiary of all of the proceeds made during the #NationalWomensHistoryMonth Festival.
Interview by Tara Keesling. Photography by Angie Lipscomb.
So what can you tell me about the Sarah Center?
Chris: We started in the mid ’80s by happenstance. In 1984, the winter that year, the average temperature was -20 in the month of January. It was terribly cold weather. The Franciscan Friars, who we represent, had a bookstore on Vine Street, and women and children started showing up at the bookstore to stay warm. They came back the following winter, and that’s when the friars asked what they would like to do rather than just watch television. The women said they’d like to sew. So the friars gave them the back room of the bookstore, and that’s how the Sarah Center was born, more or less.
How has that affected the organization and their outreach?
Chris: Well, the outreach has always been Franciscan driven. And the Franciscan careism is one of justice, peace, harmony, respect, care for the individual, compassion, and no judgment. So we don’t take names or numbers. Worldwide, the Franciscans are known for feeding the poor. If you knock on any door at any friary in the world, they will give you something to eat. Always. So we continue that tradition of feeding the poor here at the St. Anthony Center. For all of our programs, that’s our mission: to nourish and nurture the urban poor.
Lois: For the Sarah Center, I became part of the program about five years ago. I’m a retired teacher, and I started doing what I kept myself sane with while I was teaching young people. [Laughing.]
I love the Sarah Center. I teach sewing and basic concepts for people to care for their families. I mean, there are so many people who can’t even put on a button anymore, or put a zipper back in. We also have a complete program of jewelry making. We have kilns; we have equipment that many of our women – and we do take the occasional man that can stand the heat in the kitchen [laughing] – need to use to make jewelry. We also have a kiosk at Findlay Market from May to October where the wares of our artisans are sold. Twenty percent comes back to the Sarah Center for the ministries so that we can pay for that space, and 80 percent goes to the artisan who made the jewelry.
Your life is so much more than working every day, and women are such a creative force in our world. Not only do we create the children [laughing]; we create everything in our lives to make it better.
Chris: When we’re not at Findlay Market, we do all the holiday shows. We can’t sell anything out of this building because of the zoning. We also teach women, through Etsy and Pinterest, how to start their own businesses.
And we are going to be a supplier for Ten Thousand Villages. They have no American woman-owned anything, and we’re going to fill that niche soon. Getting our artisans to start making the amounts that we’re going through now is sizable. It’s a huge shift, now that we have more outlets. ...
Lois: I’ve also taken the program out to Catholic Charities, and I’ve taught about 10 women who were in their refugee program. They gave me three interpreters – you can’t imagine teaching how to sew in three languages [laughing]. But, out of those 10 women, five of them got jobs with different dry cleaners to actually do repairs –
Chris: – making $16 an hour. Widmer’s hired. And these women don’t drive, so Widmer’s has the trucks that go around, pick up the dry cleaning, and drop off all the repairs. So these women – some of them didn’t speak English, couldn’t drive, refugees – make $16 an hour at home, sewing. In fact, Catholic Charities wants us to bring that program out there again.
It sounds like there’s a lot of collaboration going on. Is there any particular collaboration you’re really excited about or that you want to highlight?
Lois: I’m excited about all the outreach that we are beginning to have. For a long time, we felt like we were the best-kept secret in Cincinnati. And what I love about the Sarah Center is that I have some of the oldest participants that come back. I have women in my classes who are 70 and 80 years old. They are consistent; they come back, and the Sarah Center is a meeting place to exchange ideas. I’m a quilter, so I love the quilting class. It’s a lot of laughter; we have so much fun. The fact that they can encourage the younger generation of women to move forward is just amazing. It’s a collaborative that has many tentacles.
Our next big phase is industrial sewing.
Chris: Industrial sewing – there’s no place in Cincinnati where you can get certification in industrial sewing. We have four industrial sewing machines. There are over 200 jobs going unfilled in Cincinnati. We’re in the early stages, and our goal is to explore this and see if we can put that program in the Sarah Center by the end of the year.
Let’s shift focus a little bit. Congratulations on receiving the proceeds of the National Women’s History Month Festival; that’s really awesome. What’s the center’s involvement with the festival? Have you been part of the planning at all?
Chris: Oh, yeah! [Laughing.] I think we had the first meeting last August.
Rachel Kramer [AlivenArts CEO] is her own institution. She’s just an amazing woman; she’s her own force. Back in October is when we cranked it all out, the whole schedule. It launches on March 2.
Lois: [The first event] is Wine, Women, and Watercolors. The whole theme is about women in arts. It really triggers our whole life, you know. Your life is so much more than working every day, and women are such a creative force in our world. Not only do we create the children [laughing]; we create everything in our lives to make it better.
We’ll also do a jewelry class and a braiding class. The quilt show will be up, so we can show some of the art that all of the women have been doing. Each person is trying to present three pieces. I’ll have two quilts on display that I made, in collaboration with the other women, that will be auctioned off in a silent auction. And we’ll have wine and hors d'oeuvres. It’ll be fun!
The Franciscan careism is one of justice, peace, harmony, respect, care for the individual, compassion, and no judgment.
We also want to make the festival open to young people, so on March 8, four schools are sending 25 girls to spend the day here at the St. Anthony Center. We will have a speaker, Rose Green, a graduate from the Sarah Center. Her beautiful quilt became part of a book that actually sent her to Africa. There was a project where you had to depict Nelson Mandela in a quilt. Hers was selected, and her desire to be with her quilt when it was presented in Africa was so great that she went back to driving a school bus at 65 or 75 years old so she could get the money. The desire was there. It changed her life.
What an amazing story.
Chris: She’s an amazing woman. She’s a motivational speaker now. She’s approaching 80. She’s her own force.
Lois: Anything you put your mind to, you can do. It’s that kind of speech I want the young women to hear. We’re inviting fifth through eighth graders to come and have a day with us at the church on March 8. … Then, on March 10, we’re having four music groups – all women’s groups – singing and playing instruments. Rachel coordinated all of that, so we’ll have a full concert that day of women’s choirs and bands. It’s going to be a wonderful activity. Then, on March 24 and March 31, we will have Lunafest, featuring movies by women filmmakers, over at Garfield Place.
What’s the Sarah Center’s biggest need?
Lois: The biggest need is exposure – people knowing that we’re here to assist and help in moving forward. I know I have sent every one of my members to Cooking for the Family. All of them have gone and are just waiting for the next level of classes. They’ve realized there is a complete network here that they can use and be a part of. We’re not just for the people who sew. You can come and suggest what you’d like to learn in the way of fiber arts. You can have a cottage based business, if you so choose.
Chris: I’d also say that we’ve been trying to raise some money to get a long arm quilter.
Lois: Well, I wasn’t going to mention it because that’s my pet project. That’s what I really want, But it’s like buying a car. [Laughing.]
Chris: A digital long arm quilter is about $30,000. We have received one gift towards it. If we had a long arm quilter here, we could really open a cottage industry of quilting. It’s a game changer for our members.
Lois: And for people that may live in the community that want quilts quilted, but now have to go to Loveland to have that done.
Chris: That’s the closest place; there’s nothing in the urban core. The other thing about quilting is: In Cincinnati, in Over-the-Rhine, in the mid 19th/early 20th century, we were the epicenter of quilting in America. There were more quilters’ guilds in Over-the-Rhine than any place else.
That’s so funny. Nobody ever talks about that!
Lois: Quilts are about memories, and the stories of the women – or men – who made them. Men are really into the quilting business now compared to the past.
Chris: So that’s kind of our dream. Maybe from the proceeds from Women’s History Month, that is what we’d use it for: to really build the quilting program.
Can you each tell me about an influential woman in your life?
Lois: There’s 20, at least. [Laughing.] Women have always been a catalyst for me. I would have to say my mother is first because she went from being an at-home mom who took in laundry and did hair… My mother graduated from college when I graduated from high school, so it was a long process for her that my father kept promising her, “You’re gonna get your education. You’re gonna get your education.” He was so jubilant when she graduated from U.C. But there were seven children, and she graduated from U.C. and became a special education teacher. The perseverance she had and the turning lemons to lemonade, that was always prevalent. … She stood behind her family and all of that. It’s about the perseverance of women, the practicality of women, that stick to it-ness. She was a very passionate person and she taught me everything.
More women were influential at that time than people know or they give them credit for. Women turned the keys and made the communities work.
Chris: There are so many women. My mother. Probably my mother’s mother. I don’t know, it’s weird; as you get older there are certain people who come into your mind, at least seasonably. And my grandmother’s been in my mind a lot lately, and I just don’t know why. She was madly in love with my grandfather at 16, and waited until she was 22 to marry him because she wanted to get a nursing degree. In order to get a nursing degree, her parents gave her some property next door to their butcher shop in downtown Detroit. She saved enough money to build a building – to put a two-family building on this property, which took her five years – and then she went to nursing school and got her nursing degree. Then she agreed to marry my grandfather because she had property and a degree. So they got married and World War I was on. They weren’t married very long, and he got drafted and left.
I just learned this not too long ago: She ended up taking care of influenza patients. She became a public health nurse in Detroit in 1918 when the influenza epidemic killed almost a third of the American population. She took care of those patients while pregnant with her first child. … But she was – what you said about your mom, Lois – practical, smart… She used her nursing degree for the rest of her life taking care of her neighbors, her extended family, her children, her grandchildren. She was one of those smart women who didn’t accept where women were supposed to be. And she encouraged all of her children to get an education. Education was huge with her; it was the key. … I feel her presence a lot. She was real organized; she was a real go-getter. And smart – when women weren’t supposed to be smart, when women were supposed to be quiet and just stay home and take care of the kids. She didn’t do that; she was a doer.
Lois: They were game players. More women were influential at that time than people know or they give them credit for. Women turned the keys and made the communities work.
To find out more about the events and times of the National Women’s History Month Festival, head to their site. Events begin March 2 and the entire month.