Affordable housing center aims to combat crime through partnership in South Philly

affordable housing
Barry Halkins

With the alarming crime rate in the City of Philadelphia, one affordable housing center aims to step up and be a vital resource within its community.

The National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia on the 1100 block of S. Broad Street has always shared a vision to combine the principles of Italian nun Rita of Cascia and the best way to serve its residing residents.

“Many years ago, it was identified that the Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia would need additional space for offices and those who visit our Shrine,” said Father Jeremy Hiers, director of evangelization and discipleship at the church. “We tried to raise money and look for opportunities to build in that space right next to the Shrine…but over the course of time, there was a need identified for affordable housing.”

Hiers says the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and leaders of the Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia came together to discuss whether there was an opportunity to combine two initiatives into one by partnering together.

“It was really a need for the spiritual needs of the Shrine and the people it serves, as well as the local community,” he stated.

Hiers adds that Saint Rita lived during a time in the late 14th century when rival families used to fight one another, as described as the “wild west.”

Saint Rita was born into a family known for creating peace agreements as she followed those practices and is often looked upon as the patron saint for creating peace in impossible cases, according to the Archdiocese.

“It’s not unlike what you see in our city today, where you have large groups of people attacking one another. That’s the mission, the symbol right here in South Philadelphia with this center,” Hiers said.

Barry Halkins

In a private-public partnership between the two Archdiocese ministries and Cecil Baker + Partners Architects, ‘Saint Rita Place‘ was soon built next to the church.

Built almost one year ago, the 5-story, 46-unit affordable housing building for seniors 62 and older offers amenities and on-site social services under the recruitment efforts and leadership of Catholic Housing and Community Services.

“Those residents who live there, the majority of them, are from the neighborhood. Many grew up there,” said Managing Partner Nancy Bastian of Cecil Baker + Partners Architects. “Quite a few were baptized in the church next door and were married there. There is a real connection from the residents.”

Bastian says her firm, which has been in Philadelphia for 40 years, works on affordable and market-rate housing units in the city along with high-end development.

“The thing that was very terrific about this project was this was an opportunity to do affordable housing in a really prime location and to combine it with that other use. To really have that landmark on Broad Street, you don’t get to build buildings on Broad Street that often,” she said amid the challenges they anticipated for the need for variants from zoning codes.

But Bastian stated the community at large was behind this project from day one and supported the need for affordable housing and a safe space to expand on therapeutic measures in an effort to reduce violence in Philadelphia.

Saint Rita Place includes a multi-purpose space for community-building, peacemaking, and reconciliation called the ‘Cascia Center’ on its first floor open to all and embodies the vision of both partnering ministries.

“Essentially, the Shrine dedicated to the saint of peacemaking and reconciliation now has a place to welcome people who want to enter into that dialogue,” said Hiers, who states the residents volunteer quite frequently during such gatherings to help out in any way.

He adds that people from all over the world come to pray at the Shrine, and this new addition ensures and provides a more sustainable location for these efforts to continue to grow and help make a difference.