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Former Navy firefighter opens Magdalene House in southwest Detroit to aid homeless women

Cara Wendling in front of Magdalene Housefixed

Cara Wendling has lived a life of service.

She served in the U.S. Navy, which left her with debilitating insomnia. She worked at the Manna Community Meal, a soup kitchen in Corktown and as a counselor for fellow veterans in New Orleans. She also worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and did a stint with the nonprofit AmeriCorps, which engages adults in public service work. Now she is getting ready to open a Catholic Worker House in southwest Detroit for expecting mothers and mothers with newborns experiencing homelessness.

Wendling, 33, and a native of Chesaning, came into some money and “decided to plant my roots in Detroit.” She used the dollars to buy a home at 9216 Mason Place that was in tax foreclosure from Wayne County.

The Magdalene House was born.

“My initial idea was to have the house be home to female veterans,” she says, “but I learned that veterans are well taken care of in Detroit. My house will be open to all women.”

The house is currently undergoing renovations and Wendling is getting lot of help from family, friends and organizations. Friends are bringing in donations. Her mom is helping her paint and is bringing flowers from her house to dress up the landscape. A youth group from St. Gabriel’s parish in southwest Detroit is doing gardening, chipping paint and other things.

A volunteer, John Lowe, from St. Gabriel’s parish works on drywall.

A volunteer, John Lowe, from St. Gabriel’s parish works on drywall.

When the house is renovated Wendling will be able to provide a home for four women. They will be recommended by Southwest Solutions and the Coordinated Assessment Model (CAM). There will also be referrals from the Day House, a Catholic Worker House run by Father Tom Lumpkin, who also serves as a mentor for Wendling. Lumpkin also co-manages Manna Community Meal, a soup kitchen at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, with Marianne Arbogast. Manna Meal is co-sponsored by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

The renovations should be completed by September 21, and she hopes to have her first guest by the end of October.

Wendling chose to name the house after Mary Magdalene because she felt “spiritually drawn” to the woman who was one of Jesus’ followers and is considered a saint by the Catholic Church.

“The Bible says Jesus cast seven demons out of her,” Wendling says. “She was a full mess. I could relate to that because of the insomnia.”

A fundraiser will be held September 6 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gaelic League, 2068 Michigan Avenue, to raise money for the Magdalene House. Music will be provided by Corktown’s The Codgers. Food includes homemade shepherd’s pie and dessert, and there will be a raffle and giveways. The cost is $20 at the door.

There’ll also be Guinness provided by Paddy Lynch, a funeral director in the family business of Lynch & Sons and one of Wendling’s supporters. He also is donating a Happy Hour Kresge Mansion tour and a Schvitz spa package for six-eight for the raffle. Lynch bought and renovated the 1915, six-bedroom Kresge mansion six years ago. Detroit Bikes owner Zak Pashak donated the A-type bike, one its signature bikes.

If you can’t make the event and want to donate, please go to the Magdalene House website.

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Lynch, who like Wendling believes in giving back, serves on the Board of Directors at Cristo Rey High School in Southwest Detroit, South Oakland Shelter and the Christ Child House.

“I hope I can provide a network that will help Cara move forward,” he says, emphasizing that starting out slow by providing a place for a small number of women is the right way for Wendling to go.

“Cara will learn a lot about living this lifestyle,” he says. “It can be more complicated than we would want it to be.”

Many of these women suffer from mental illness and simply cannot live alone. These women are what many would call a “failure,” Lynch says. “What makes people like Father Lumpkin and Cara live this life is not about success, or a way to gauge success. It is not about money, it is about human relationships.

“There is a freedom in setting aside worldly things and living among people who don’t have those things,” he says.

He points out these Worker Homes are not 501c3 corporations. They work off the grid and rely on donations and volunteers that help them make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.

 Once the  Magdalene House is fully renovated, it will be home for four women

Once the Magdalene House is fully renovated, it will be home for four women


This dining room will soon be filled with the lively banter of residents.

This dining room will soon be filled with the lively banter of residents.

There are many things in Wendling’s life that led her to the Manna Community Meal soup kitchen and then to the Magdalene House.

“If you don’t know where I am coming from, you won’t understand when I say living in a homeless shelter in Detroit is probably one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve had in a very long time,” she says.

Wendling spent three and a half years in the Navy and was a member of the Flying Squad on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. That unit is the ship’s first line of defense if an incident occurs at sea. It is called in the event of a fire, flooding, toxic gas or any other type of casualty the ship would need to respond to while underway. That means those in the unit must be ready to drop whatever they are doing and respond 24 hours a day.

She left the Navy in 2013 with debilitating insomnia, which is now under control.

“Apparently this is common for approximately half of all returning female veterans,” she says. “Every other night I would wake up and stand a four-hour watch, so sleep on the ship was rare, coveted and irregular.””

Wendling went on to earn her masters degree in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans. She did her internship at the Southeastern Veterans Administration in New Orleans. In her role as a counselor and fellow veteran, she saw lives shattered and families torn apart by PTSD. “That experience was what truly made me a believer in peace,” she says.

She then spent time as a paid worker on the Bernie Sanders campaign in Des Moines, Iowa. While serving on that campaign she found out about the Catholic Worker Movement as volunteers not only worked for Sanders but also provided supplies for the Worker Houses in the city.

The Catholic Worker Movement is a collection of autonomous communities or homes that provide social services. Each house has its own mission as it works for social justice. The movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day and French immigrant Peter Maurin. Day had an abortion in a failed relationship when she was 22 years old and later became pregnant again in a common-law marriage. As a single parent she supported herself and her daughter as a freelance journalist. Day also helped establish special homes to help those in need. The movement has always tackled issues of social justice.

Unfortunately, working 80 hours a week and the stress of the campaign brought back the insomnia. Wendling passed out at the office, hit her head on a window, woke up drenched in sweat, and had to be taken to the ER. Even with medication she still wasn’t able to sleep and had to quit.

She came to Detroit contacted Father Lumpkin and asked if she could come stay with him to learn more about the Worker Movement. For the past 43 years Lumpkin has been assigned to the Catholic Worker Movement that runs Day House, a shelter for abused women and their children, along with co-managing the Manna Community Meal soup kitchen.

Lumpking agreed, and Wendling went to work in the soup kitchen. She stayed in a room in the Day House and shared space in the Blessing Room with a neurotic cat named Smokey. She slept on a small couch because there were no rooms available. Five months later she got a bedroom and a bed.

While working with Lumpkin for a year she realized she wanted to do more for homeless women and looked into opening the Magdalene House.

This is not Wendling’s first experience in Detroit. She came here after graduating from Saginaw Valley State University in 2008. She had just completed an AmeriCorps term with the American Red Cross, working with adolescent girls in the foster care system at Holy Cross Children’s services. From there she got her first job in Detroit, working for a mental health provider funded by Wayne County. The job was low-paying and very stressful, with large caseloads and strict time constraints.

On Wednesday nights she played poker at the Hunt Club in Grosse Pointe. There she met a civil rights lawyer and decided that was the career for her. She joined the Navy to offset the cost of going to law school, to travel and to help oppressed women in the Middle East.

“I chose the Navy because I’m actually terrified of guns and also wanted to travel,” she says. “I chose to be a firefighter because both of my grandfathers were civilian firefighters.”

Cara Wendling in front of Magdalene House2 fixed

Cara Wendling stands in front of the Magdalene House. Quoting the words of Mahatma Gandhi she says, “live simply so others can simply live. That would sum up the Catholic Worker Movement for me.”

With the Magdalene House Wendling is now firefighting in a different capacity. In many ways she will be the first line of defense for these women.

“I wanted to expand on the Catholic Worker Movement because there is a great need I Detroit,” she says. “I also wanted to do God’s work and have a meaningful life.”

Quoting the words of Mahatma Gandhi, she says, “live simply so others can simply live. That would sum up the Catholic Worker Movement for me.”

- Reprinted with permission from TheHUB Detroit.

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