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At SisterHouse, women in need grow stronger, but building is falling apart

Constance Franklin, 55, has been through many recovery programs in a lifetime of fighting addiction, but after seven months at SisterHouse, she thinks she's on a better path. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

It’s not always easy living in a house full of women, say the women of SisterHouse, but they wouldn’t want it any other way.

Located in a former convent in Austin, SisterHouse is a temporary home for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

For nearly four decades, SisterHouse has served as a refuge for women trying to piece their lives back together.

Now, that refuge itself is in a difficult state of transition.

The convent building has fallen into disrepair, and SisterHouse can’t afford the repairs. The program has identified a new location where it hopes to move but will need some angels to help make that work, too.

SisterHouse has always been on the side of the angels since it was founded in 1982 by a 76-year-old Catholic nun, Sr. Anne Mayer.


Opened as a transitional housing program for women leaving prison, SisterHouse has both broadened and narrowed its mission through the years — expanding to help other women in need of housing while focusing more on their common need to recover from substance abuse.

These are women like Corneisha Fowler, 21, who came here a month ago after finishing a 30-day detox program for alcoholism.

“I didn’t want to go back to my momma’s house because I knew I was going to end up drunk again,” Fowler told me during a visit to the facility.

Fowler, who grew up in Garfield Park, said she began drinking at 12 — whiskey her drink of choice. She didn’t let up until, by her own admission, “I was headed down a very dark road of destruction.”

On one occasion, she was hit by a bus while drunk. Another time, she woke up in the hospital to learn that she had been found passed out face down in the snow. Her sister convinced her to get help.

Unlike many of the other women at SisterHouse, this is Fowler’s first time through recovery. But she’s optimistic the highly structured environment, in which every hour of the day is scheduled, will make it the last program she’ll need.

“I’m getting help, and I’m getting good help,” she said.

She has months more work ahead of her to complete the program, but Fowler has started to envision a future in which she gets a job and her own apartment, which she vows to decorate with navy blue and white couches.

At the other end of the spectrum is Constance Franklin, 55, one of the oldest residents in SisterHouse’s current group of 13 women. Franklin, formerly of Rockwell Gardens, also started drinking at 12 before progressing to pot, pills, crack cocaine and heroin.

Franklin said she has been in and out of treatment programs her whole life. But, after seven months at SisterHouse, she thinks this time will be different.

“This program is much stricter,” she said. “They keep us busy all the time.”

That daily schedule includes required trips to AA or NA meetings, job training, work, chores, group counseling and meditation.

“Believe me, we be looking forward to going to bed,” said Franklin, who has a housekeeping job downtown.

Women are allowed to stay at SisterHouse for up to two years before transitioning back to living independently.

The program remains a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, which provides some funding, along with staff training.

But SisterHouse receives no government money, a double-edged sword that leaves it free to conduct its program without interference but also without an important potential source of funds.

“We’re really strapped,” said Lisa Steward-Baugh, who took over as executive director in October.

Lisa Steward-Baugh, executive director of SisterHouse. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times
Lisa Steward-Baugh, executive director of SisterHouse. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Like many such programs, SisterHouse has been quietly going about its business of rebuilding lives without tooting its own horn.

With tough times on it doorstep, it seemed like a good time to let people know.