In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

McAuley Residence

During the 1980s, the number of impoverished families in Maine who needed shelter rose tremendously. Several Sisters, including Sisters Patricia Mooney, Michele Aronica, and Elizabeth Kilbride, participated in a Committee on Homelessness under the leadership of sociologist Sister Mary George O’Toole, Ph.D., who coordinated efforts. O’Toole, who suggested the committee consider transitional housing, secured a $20,000 grant from brothers John, Richard and Charles Gendron to finance a study.

192-194 Spring Street, Portland, 1924
192-194 Spring Street, Portland, 1924
The first McAuley Residence buildingCity of Portland - Planning & Development

To conduct the research, Sister Mary George turned to Sister Miriam Therese Callnan, a social studies teacher at Catherine McAuley High School. In 1986, Sister Miriam was asked to change her sabbatical plans to undertake a research trip to visit the state’s eight women’s shelters, as well as welfare offices and hubs of other services.

Sister Miriam was looking for two criteria: the first was the presence of significant populations of homeless women and children, and the other was the availability of educational and employment resources, public transportation, and social services. She settled on two centers of need which appeared to have the local resources to support transitional housing.

The first location identified was in Portland. The Sisters opened the McAuley Residence at 194 Spring Street in March 1988 in a building loaned by the hospital. This first residence contained three small apartments, which housed women, some with young children, for up to eighteen-months. Run by the Sisters of Mercy under the direction of Sister Annette Rioux, MSW, McAuley Residence initially operated independently from Mercy Hospital. By 1989, the original founding committee evolved into a more formal Board of Trustees. By 1993, 22 women with 28 children had resided at the Portland location.

The second location was, unexpectedly, Caribou. The Sisters, with local northern Maine supporters, tried to marshal sufficient resources to set up a program in an unused parish house. Unfortunately, funding problems and fewer referrals than anticipated led to the Caribou home’s closing after only a few months.

The McAuley Residence in Portland relied on charitable donations for the necessary funding. In 1990, the organization began selling house pins from Designs by Lucinda at local vendors. Other local fundraising efforts ranged from the Sonesta Women’s Race and selling “Super Burritos” at the Deering Oak Family Festival. The Elks Club and Italian Heritage Club also participated in fundraising spaghetti dinners.

Increased demand for services and space encouraged McAuley Residence to begin a closer affiliation with Mercy Hospital in 1997, when the Mercy Recovery program moved to Forest Avenue. Hoping to expand McAuley, Sister Mary Laboure Morin, President of the Portland Sisters of Mercy, reached an agreement with Mercy Health System of Maine to take over the hospital’s now-vacated 91 State Street building. The McAuley Residence trustees paid for renovations conducted by a Mercy crew, and the new location doubled the transitional housing program to six apartments, including four large enough for women and their young children. Mercy generously provided rent-free space for the program.

The McAuley Residence model draws on the example of Mother Catherine McAuley herself, who used her considerable resources to assist homeless women, teach young people, and provide a measure of skills training for the people she ministered to in Dublin. As Sister Miriam once described it, McAuley Residence “is based on a model of personal growth within a supportive environment, with the expectation that a woman take the steps and give her best effort to realizing her full potential.”

Howard Buckley, CEO of Mercy Health System, asked Sister Miriam to run McAuley Residence in 1999, beginning her eleven-year tenure there. Sister Miriam helped to blend the McAuley Residence into the larger Mercy Healthcare System, overseeing integration with related programs.

In 2010, Melissa Skahan, later Mercy’s Vice President of Mission Integration, became Executive Director and oversaw a partnership with Community Housing of Maine for expansion into a new, child-appropriate fifteen-unit residence on 68 High Street. Skahan also transformed the addiction and support programs available to women at the McAuley Residence into a holistic evidence-based model to combat substance use disorder. It provided three intense, highly structured phases, coordinated for individual and group progress, with family reunification, independence, housing, and sobriety as the goals. Results are remarkable with 80% of the women remaining clean and sober, with a 95% success rate for reunification of mother and child/children.

The 15th anniversary celebration in 2003 provided ample testimony to the impact McAuley Residence has had on the community. A number of women who called the Residence home attended or sent notes of thanks. These included the first resident, who arrived at McAuley with a two-year old daughter, successfully transitioned out of the program, earned a college degree, and started her own business. She later expressed gratitude to “the original staff for their uncommon strength and generosity, their active minds, wise counsel, and their love.” Residents recalled learning to manage time, budgets, and relationships in a nurturing environment, which led to taking better care of themselves and their children.

As of 2018, 30 years since its founding, McAuley Residence has provided comprehensive care to 330 women and children, and it continues to be an important hub for comprehensive care and recovery in Greater Portland.