For the past three years, Anne Osdieck has been praying with homeless or recently homeless men and women in St. Louis. The retired high school art teacher and Ignatian Volunteer Corps member has long been interested in Ignatian spirituality and has read a great deal about it. The poor are teaching her even more.

By Thomas Rochford SJ

For the past three years, Anne Osdieck has been praying with homeless or recently homeless men and women in St. Louis. The retired high school art teacher and Ignatian Volunteer Corps member has long been interested in Ignatian spirituality and has read a great deal about it. The poor are teaching her even more.

“It is a gift to be part of their sharing,” she said. “They inspire me to do what they are doing.”

Osdieck was a volunteer at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church when she was asked to help start a retreat program for the homeless like the one Jesuit Fr. Bill Creed pioneered in Chicago. Attempts to imitate the spirituality program at College Church faltered until a move to St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis put the program right next to the people.

The College Church was too far away from the people it wanted to invite. The homeless and formerly homeless take part in various programs throughout the day at St. Patrick Center, one of Missouri’s largest providers of housing, employment and health services. The center fills an old office building in downtown St. Louis.


Two mornings a week, Osdieck goes around the lounge at St. Patrick with other facilitators looking for people to participate in the prayer sessions. They invite men to the Monday session and women to the Thursday session. On average, six persons agree to join them in a small meeting room where they gather around a conference table.

The facilitator begins with a meditative prayer to help people get in touch with their feelings and try to be open to meet God. Each session has a theme such as gratitude, fear, suffering, forgiveness, grace or compassion. All of the participants, including volunteers such as Osdieck, share their own experiences related to the theme. The hour-long session ends with the Serenity Prayer.

Osdieck reflected on how the sessions have influenced her own faith life. She said that frequently men and women in the group will say they like to spend a little time each evening thinking back over the day to see where God was present.

“That’s got a name,” Osdieck said, referring to an Ignatian practice called the Examen. “I know how to do that, but I don’t do it.”

One of the participants, Al, a part-time school janitor, couldn’t afford his apartment last summer. He rented a self-storage unit and slept in that with some of his belongings. It was safer than sleeping on the street, he explained; you just need a good flashlight. In August, he started working again, and moved back into an apartment.

“God is so good!” he said. “I don’t have a bed, but it doesn’t matter. I have all I need.”

Osdieck recalled a session on the topic of affirmation. Another participant, Tim, was working on ending his addiction. “Here’s what I think,” he said. “When the good thief asked Jesus to remember him when he got to paradise, it was like the Father’s affirmation of everything Jesus had done, everything in his ministry. Jesus knew that all was well at the end.”

Osdieck recalled that a woman in the group was struck by the fact that Jesus was born homeless and how she likes to imagine she was present in the Gospel stories. That made Osdieck think of the Ignatian method of praying through the imagination.

Another Ignatian insight came when Pat, a disabled vet who just got his own apartment, talked about being successful in life until negative thinking got him in trouble. He is more aware of this tendency, and chooses instead to be positive.

This sounds like the fruit of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises, which are designed to help people put their lives in order so they are free to respond to God. Many of the stories the participants shared came from their struggle to put their lives in order.

One thread that ran through the sessions was a keen sense that they are now in a graced place compared to where they once were. They may have lost their parents or been in an abusive relationship. A number of the men served time in prison. Most have struggled with addictions. 

When people are stripped of everything, they have nothing else to do but look back at life and see that things were not working. They remember a better life when they were younger, and want to get back to that. They change.

“They have all these things in the past, but now they realize that grace has helped them change,” Osdieck said.

One man recalled being at the point of death and praying, “God, I know I deserve everything that has happened to me, but if you let me live, I will change.” He did.

One participant, Diane, was depressed and angry with everyone in her life. Her children were with their father and she couldn’t see herself moving forward. She came to the spirituality meetings every week and eventually began to change. She got an apartment and found a job to support herself. She began to communicate with her children. She told Osdieck that the prayer group helped her change from the self-absorbed person she was to an outgoing, hopeful person who turned out to be a great model for the other women in the group.

A moment of change for a man named Gary came while he was in solitary confinement in prison. He felt forgotten by the authorities and in the silence of a cell, decided that his life had to change. He knew what his life had been until the age of 11. He had parents who went to church and raised him right. When his parents died, he moved in with an aunt who provided him a place to sleep but little else. He floundered on his own and ended up in prison.

In solitary, he decided to stop what got him into prison and get back to what he was like earlier. He was talking to God the whole time, and he got it straight. That’s the way it was going to be.

When the guards finally came to let him out of solitary, he said, “Leave me here a while longer; I’m not done yet.” Once he got out, he was a different person and changed his life radically.

Vernon was also in prison but his decision to change was less dramatic. He just decided he’d had enough. “My life was never going to be any good until I stopped drinking and drugs,” he said.

Now, Osdieck said, he is a facilitator of one of the men’s groups. He tells his story to others who struggle with addictions and other challenges. He tells them about what his life is like now, rich, not with money or things, but in freedom and control of his life. He has gotten to know his daughter and grandson, something he had no time for before.

“He is a wonderful example to other people in the group who are trying to give up drinking,” she said.

Osdieck marvels at the participants’ insights and how they arrived at them.

How did they learn to pray this way? How did St. Ignatius learn? Perhaps the experience of extreme poverty, of having nothing to stop them from getting to what really matters, is common to both the founder of the Jesuits and those she meets at St. Patrick Center. Maybe Ignatius was able to discover it once his pride and privilege were shattered by a cannonball in a military accident, forcing him into solitude, reflection and eventual conversion.

“Ignatius discovered it and put words to it, but God created each one of us and is present inside, down deep in this place we have to get to,” she said. “The homeless get there faster; they don’t have anything else.

“Nobody told them how to pray; they just learn it on their own because they don’t have stuff cluttering up their lives,” she added.

Osdieck said she has learned not to judge anyone because of his or her appearance. Rather, she tries to get to know people to reveal the beauty inside.

After awhile, it becomes hard to distinguish the volunteers from the homeless, she said.

She also has learned to pray differently.

“I know more about how God cares for people,” she said. “I can see him working in people’s lives. When I see him active in someone’s life who has nothing else, then I know him better. They would like bus passes and lunch, and they get those, but they meet Christ and he is all that they need.”

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