St. Ann's Hospital and College Heights
For those of you who do not know, there is a large, abandoned hospital in the middle of northern College Heights. It was known as St. Ann's for many years while it served the city as a primary hub for healing, recuperation, welcoming new lives into Abilene, and bidding tearful goodbyes to loved ones passing on. After it closed its doors, it played host to the Marbridge House, a nonprofit that equipped folks with social and mental challenges to join the workforce. But after a few years, the grounds that once bustled with activity were left vacant. Disrepair set in, as it exchanged ownership, dealt with vandalism, and endured who knows how many West Texas hail storms. March 24th, 2010 seemed like a really bad day at the time. I was serving as the Camp Director for Camp of the Hills, a church camp for at-risk youth. The first summer had been incredibly hard, yet rewarding, and the following summer was looking much more manageable. A phone call from my boss would put a big dent in that optimism. There had been an electrical fire. Our main facility was ablaze. There was nothing we could do.
As I frantically tried to figure out what to do, a close-knit group of friends surrounded me and a few other Camp of the Hills faithful, prayed for us, and offered support. Soon enough, I was grasping for anything to take my mind off of the impending changes that were going to make the 2010 summer so much more difficult. My friends had just the distraction.
This group of friends had been brought together by a series of events too convoluted to recount in such a short space. Suffice it to say that over the course of a few days, seven or so friends and acquaintances felt simultaneously called to 1) live in intentional Christian community with each other, 2) move into a low-income, high crime neighborhood with the hope of learning from neighbors that which we couldn't learn in the suburban/university-centric neighborhoods we had been calling home, and 3) incorporate into this crazy notion some way of alleviating homelessness through a Housing-First model and living with formerly houseless folks. An odd group, no doubt, but good-hearted, if a little optimistic and ambitious.
Three of our group had been on assignment from the Abilene Christian Graduate School of Theology to walk around the College Heights neighborhood, simply to observe, listen, and try to be open to what God was already doing. These three came upon a massive structure, built using the iconic stonework that pops up all over the city. By ducking through the overgrown brush on the side of the building, they came to the front of what you surely guessed was St. Ann's. And, lo and behold, there was a "For Sale" sign by the front door.
Some research and a few phone calls unearthed information that sent electricity down their spines. Over 70 rooms. Two kitchens. A chapel. And an attached two-story area where the nuns who cared for the hospital had once lived. Collective dreams were sparked.
As they relayed their findings to the rest of us that night, it became more and more clear that March 24th would become more than a day of sadness for me. Soon enough, Camp of the Hills would be back on its feet and better than ever. Yet for seven years, this dilapidated building between Cedar and Cypress has animated my heart and imagination like nothing else ever has.
Our group was soon resolved, and began laying plans to move into College Heights. At first, the idea was to move right into the hospital, but that ended up being cost prohibitive for a bunch of school-indebted twenty-somethings. We went for the next best thing: living together to train for the upcoming adventure as we began looking for ways to move into the neighborhood. Soon enough, our group had moved into five houses within a half-mile or so of the site, including right across the street from the front door.
It seemed that over the next few years, for every setback there was a triumph. Every roadblock was tempered by a moment of validation. And though time and life circumstances displaced some of our group, I think each of us kept the dream in our hearts.
Years later, I found myself tapped to be a part of a team at Highland Church of Christ studying homelessness. Our goal was to imagine how Highland could be a part of ending systemic homelessness in Abilene. While I did my best to be impartial, the dream of a Housing First program at St. Ann's had woven itself into my DNA. I was thrilled when our research and recommendations led to leadership choosing to partner with CitySquare to begin a new program in Abilene.
More than a year later, Highland announced that the partnership has made its first big move: they purchased St. Ann's. Once completed, it will once again be a place of healing, recuperation, welcoming and bidding farewell. Folks will again be equipped to more effectively live as citizens and neighbors.
In the years after we "discovered" St. Ann's, we learned that many folks, including former CCC Executive Director Brad Carter, had voiced similar dreams for the crumbling building. Obviously, folks had the dream after us as well. As we understand it, it was never our dream. It was one of God's dreams for the neighborhood, for the city, for the world. I feel blessed to have played a part in the story so far, and am even more excited about what happens in the future. College Heights will be adding some new neighbors soon, and I can't wait to welcome them to this place so many call home!