“Now I suggest such a peasantry of volunteers primarily as a nucleus, but I think it will be a nucleus of attraction. I think it will stand up not only as a rock but as a magnet . . . . It will become important when a number of other things can no longer be done.
G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity
It was early February in Minnesota. We had just moved after a financial crisis, into the only house we could afford that could hold all eight of us. It was across the city, a completely unfamiliar neighborhood. We had recently switched parishes too, after years of soul-searching, and were still unconnected there. Furthermore, my dad had died only a year and a half earlier and we were reeling from his loss.
Homeschooling had been challenging enough in the old house because of the lack of space and a homeschool co-op that didn’t really fit for my kids or me. But there had been one homeschooling family a block over with a boy and girl the same ages as my second son and third daughter, and a few kids of other ages who would come and play outside occasionally. My biggest dread, this February, was that my younger homeschooled son, surrounded by only sisters all day, would shrivel up from lack of masculine friendship, which, try as we might, just hadn’t happened at the co-op. I didn’t see how we could homeschool him. But if we didn’t, how would we afford to send him to Catholic school? With the mess we were in, it would be a miracle if we could pay even fifty dollars a month. And then, we didn’t really want him in school, nor the girls. (My oldest two children were in a private school where my husband was teaching, which gave us a huge break on tuition.) So here, in the new house, my fervent prayer was, “Dear Lord, please, let there be at least one nice Christian homeschooled boy for my Leo to play with during the day.”
Through a social media request, I then learned that, in our new neighborhood, there were three other homeschooling Catholic families within two blocks, and many more within a mile. Total number of boys: fourteen, from babies on up to high schoolers. (There were also four girls.) And thus began, six years ago, our introduction into a radical Catholic community that has been one of the biggest blessings our family has ever received.
I call it the Catholic ghetto.
How did this ghetto come to be? It arose out of a Catholic charismatic community that has a strong presence in this area. One of their practices has been to buy houses very near each other, usually within a block or so, in areas they call “clusters.” These clusters then practice what seems an impossibly old-fashioned kind of neighborliness, but with intentionality. They lend and borrow, share work and equipment, have backyard picnics together, and let their children run around together. They put on a nativity play each Christmas with all the children, and in the spring, have a bonfire in which dry Christmas trees are burned whole, like gigantic torches. The families live ordinary Catholic life, but so near to each other that they can become little oases of sanity: right in the middle of a large metro area, clusters of like-minded Catholics, raising their children with a common vision of loving and serving God, while loving and serving each other.
And so, although our family is not and won’t be part of that Charismatic community (we are now thoroughly involved in the Latin Mass parish we had just joined before moving), we have been folded into this cluster, and beginning in February 2015 my younger kids have spent a good chunk of their childhoods living a life that I would not have believed possible today: playing outdoors, climbing trees, skating at the local rink, learning card games and night games and praise and worship songs and how to play the guitar (a little) and how to dismantle a broken piano with a pickax and how to dance the Virginia reel. Doing all these things merely involved walking down the street to the neighbor’s house or opening the door to them when they knocked here. Instead of needing a ride to see friends, the kids walk down the block and across a street and around the corner. Instead of play dates, they just — play!
My husband and I have also found a richness in living in the Catholic ghetto. We have had time to talk about faith and raising kids, we’ve supported each other in tough parenting, and lent a practical hand. The other women in the cluster are also stay-at-home moms, and we rely on each other for advice, guidance, and just someone to laugh and cry with. The proverbial cup of sugar is always available to borrow, as are picnic plates, folding tables, and canoes (really!).
Twenty years ago, I would have looked with suspicion and skepticism at such a purposive move toward community life. Utopianism, I would have thought. A fortress mentality that closes itself off from the call to live in the world and transform it. A narrowing of horizons that would eventually make the children, when grown, run screaming for the “real world.” And such an intentional way of living could in fact be all these things. People could resent anyone new (like us) coming into the neighborhood, could be aloof or superior, could condemn. And within the cluster, unresolved irritations, misunderstandings, and grudges could wreak havoc on the harmony. In fact, my younger self’s view of this type of life would have been much like the view of homeschooling that many people still have.
Our experience, though, as is also true with homeschooling, has been far different.
First of all, each family in the cluster has found good ways of keeping the family boundaries clear; Sundays are very rarely days for cluster socializing – families have their own traditions and practices on the Lord’s day. Sometimes we don’t see people for a while – life gets busy or they’re traveling – and that’s fine. Kids have gone off to college, elderly parents have been taken in, jobs have been lost, new ones sought. Each family has a routine; when we are able to get together, we do it, but if we can’t, we can say hello. The kids see each other most days somehow.
Second, anyone currently raising children knows how much they will sacrifice on a worldly plane in order to find good Catholic camaraderie. This shared value to support each other in living authentic Catholicism has kept relationships positive among the adults. We have become friends just through being in it — together! Furthermore, there is a beautiful reinforcement of wholesomeness among the children: the boys and girls have learned how to play, work, talk, and pray together in friendship. Most of them are teenagers now, and they can be friendly, teasing, and still even silly without the tension that I remember so vividly from my high school years in mixed groups. And finally, as boys and girls become young men and women, they enter into the adult friendships of the men and women in the cluster. The boys have the benefit of seeing other Catholic men living their faith. They learn how to work and how to respect women. The girls also have the benefit of seeing Catholic women who are happy in the vocation of wife and mother, learn how to respect men and how to work for and love others.
And we can pray together. One family has a stack of old Liturgy of the Hours books, and when there is a bonfire, the evening ends with a shortened form of evening prayer. Then they get out the guitars and everyone sings. My husband and I still don’t know all the songs, which are praise and worship style, but our kids do. And sometimes we then sing the Salve Regina, which I have taught to several of them in the Latin class I conduct in our homeschool room. We pray for each other, encourage one another. It sounds like a Hallmark movie, I know. But it really does happen. It is not too good to be true; it is very good and it’s true.
While it is customary to end an article like this one by offering “action points,” I am not going to do so. Instead, I would say again how greatly blessed our family has been by the countercultural decision that other families made two decades ago. Instead of closing us off from the world, it has given us the context to handle the many shocks and challenges the contemporary culture has handed out, while still maintaining a sense of normalcy. It has given us Catholic friends where we live. It isn’t a fortress or utopia by any means, but instead, well, a home.
Maybe you think that this would never work in your area or with the people you know. Maybe it wouldn’t. It does require that everybody has the same general idea and is willing to work and sacrifice to realize it. It requires that the breadwinners place a priority on finding work within a drivable distance. It requires that families find ways to live together while maintaining their own family identities. It probably will require that at least some of the families end up living in an area or a house that wouldn’t have been their top choice.
On the other hand, maybe it would work. Maybe these darkening times are calling for a new way of maintaining the faith. What the parish used to be no longer exists for many, maybe most, American Catholics. Our family’s experience in the Catholic ghetto has convinced me that we don’t have to keep trying the same exhausted strategies. Catholic culture is being built here in our little cluster in the city. If it can work here, even including our sinful selves, it can work in other places too.
Sibyl Niemann is an academic proofreader, homeschool teacher, wife, and mother of six. She enjoys reading, walking, and singing in the church choir. Her family lives in Minnesota.