A safe home community for those who lost everything
In 2004, Sister Cathy Buster, SP, (formerly Sister Joseph Norene) was ministering in the Catholic Diocese of Venice, Florida, as director of the real estate department, when one of the worst disasters in Florida history hit. Hurricane Charley – a Category 4 Hurricane, terrorized the state for six days. It was the strongest hurricane to strike Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Hurricane Charley destroyed nearly all the farm worker housing in the city of Arcadia, located in the Diocese of Venice. The storm destroyed the belongings of nearly 8,000 migrant farmworking families in the city.
The CEO of Catholic Charities Housing in the diocese approached Sister Cathy and asked if she would work with him in creating new housing for the farmworkers in Arcadia.
“I was thrilled to be asked,” Sister Cathy said. “That became my project: to find the property and make it happen.”
And make it happen she did. Sister Cathy set up the project – called Casa San Juan Bosco – in two phases. The first phase began in 2004 following the hurricane.
“It took us eight-and-a-half years to get the first shovel in the ground,” Sister Cathy said. “I wanted to work with God’s working poor, who lost all of their belongings during the hurricane. They were living in broken down trailers with two or three families in each.”
Despite that length of time, Sister Cathy said the second portion of the first phase only took 18 months as officials in DeSoto County – where Arcadia is located – began to take notice.
“The county learned that we meant business and cooperated fully and quickly,” she said.
The end result was the new community in Arcadia. Casa San Juan Bosco I is a 53-home complex for migrant farmworkers. Families began moving into the community in 2013. Soon all 53 homes were filled. All the homes were built to withstand hurricane winds. Each home was equipped with Energy Star appliances, making it the largest green community for families in Florida.
Phase two of the project, Casa San Juan Bosco II, was just recently completed. There are 44 homes in this community as of October. Five families had already moved in. Several other families’ applications are pending approval by the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program.
A ribbon cutting for the community took place Oct. 4, 2016. A fiesta luncheon for guests followed, complete with Mariachi music.
Both complexes have community centers and offer day care services. They offer Head Start programs, health care, English as a Second Language training, immigration assistance, a playground and more.
“The farmworkers and their families love their homes and we have been 100 percent occupied,” Sister Cathy said. “It was my dream to build them beautiful homes and I worked with a great architect. He understood what I was trying to accomplish: A community that would be safe and welcoming for them.”
Several Sisters of Providence were on hand for the official opening of Casa San Juan Bosco II. They were thrilled to see the fruits of all of the labor that went into the complex.
“Being present to affirm Sister Cathy’s steady and determined years of planning, fundraising, and facilitating civic, community and church leadership to complete both phase I and phase II was gratifying,” Sister Jody O’Neil, SP, said. “The recognition of her leadership, emphasizing her tenacity in getting the job done, evoked a standing ovation.”
Providence Associate Sheila Donis also attended the ceremony.
“I have been to this most beautiful place several times,” Donis said. “The residents have always shown respect and care for the property. My greatest joy was to see young children getting off of the school bus and walking with their friends to their homes in a safe and fun environment.
“Yes, what Sister Cathy has done is quite remarkable and a perfect model for future housing for low income legal immigrants.”
Plans are already in place for a third phase of the project. Sister Cathy said it will be a housing community for seniors 62 and older. The seniors do not have to be farmworkers.
“There will be 32 homes and a community center,” she said. “It has been named St. John Paul II by the Bishop. That will be the final construction since all of the acreage of land we own will have been used. It is really exciting!”
(Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of HOPE magazine.)