photographs by Amie Vanderford
Although some might find it difficult to sum up St. Peter Manor in just a couple of words, Debbie Currie can do it without blinking: “Unconditional love,” she says.
Currie serves as project compliance coordinator for The Catholic Diocese of Memphis Housing Corporation, the nonprofit entity that oversees six rental retirement properties around West Tennessee in addition to St. Peter on North Auburndale in Midtown. She has worked in various capacities for the organization since 1985. Her mission, as she sees it, is a simple one: “We do all we can do to make life better for senior citizens and the mobility impaired.”
St. Peter receives Section VIII funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It houses people age 62 and older or the mobility-impaired whose annual incomes are what HUD considers low ($32,700 for a household of one), very low ($20,450), and extremely low ($12,250). It has 283 apartment units, with 49 of those being 381-square-foot efficiencies. The majority of the units have one bedroom with 512 square feet of living space. Ten units are rented at market rate for residents whose incomes exceed the HUD guidelines. All of the units are outfitted with kitchen appliances, carpeting, and curtains.
Right now, 92 percent of St. Peter’s units are occupied, says Cherry Brooks, director of housing for the housing corporation, but she says, “We have a waiting list, of course.” At this writing, 19 people were waiting to hear whether they qualify to live at St. Peter. Many are drawn by the facility’s amenities, Brooks says, which include a sundry store, a beauty shop, a large fenced-in property with daily security, a volunteer-run library, a laundry, and a computer lab where grandparents can keep in touch with family via email. Residents are allowed one small pet, and can often be seen walking their dogs on the manicured grounds.
“There are people who have lived here 20 years who will tell you they’re only leaving in a box,” Brooks says.
In her spare time, Brooks sings at elder-care facilities through a group called Creative Aging. In all her travels, she says St. Peter’s atmosphere is one of the homiest she’s encountered. And that’s by design. Part of the housing corporation’s mission statement is to provide humane, dignified accommodations and to strengthen social and communal ties among residents.
That’s the way it’s been for Rosie Allen, who has called St. Peter home for about 16 years. She’s 94, retired from caregiving work, and raised her son, who is now 74, alone. She lives in a one-bedroom unit with a balcony, surrounded by family photos and everything she needs to live comfortably.
“It has been wonderful living here,” she says. “Everything has been very pleasant for me.” As far as she’s concerned, St. Peter will be her home for the rest of her life.
That’s the kind of feeling Mary Dowling works to foster every day as property manager at St. Peter. “We try to provide the kind of home that more upscale facilities do, within our resources,” she says.
One perk includes having medications delivered for people who can’t get to a pharmacy. Exercise classes are offered and, recently, money was raised to buy a new 22-passenger bus that takes residents to doctors’ appointments and on shopping excursions. It also takes them on various outings around town. A doctor even makes house calls for residents who are homebound. “You can not leave the campus for several days and be just fine,” Dowling says.
For people in wheelchairs, all of the bathrooms in the first-floor apartments have walk-in bathing areas. HUD subsidizes utilities in all of the units, making them even
more affordable for those who need it most. Cable and phone services are available to residents at an extra cost. Nursing students visit from the Southern College of Optometry and members of the Baptist Mobile Mammography Unit stop by to help with women’s exams.
A staff of resource coordinators also helps residents connect with needed services, whether that involves medical care or food or to help them remain as independent as possible.
Many of the people Dowling interviews for residency are coming from substandard housing, so she says it’s gratifying when they’re able to move in. “I’m proud of us as a Section VIII facility, doing what we do.”
Jim Easter, who runs the library on the fourth floor three days a week, was one such person. He had been living in another HUD-funded facility for about 10 years, when it started to become surrounded by drug dealers and panhandlers. That’s when he started thinking about St. Peter. “I knew some people here who said it was really nice,” he says.
Easter, 69, is blind in one eye and a military veteran who once worked as a finance and human resource executive for a nonprofit medical organization. He relishes his volunteer role, in which he acquires large-print books at deep discounts and makes sure residents have access to the latest bestsellers. “I wanted to start bar-coding on everything, but for our volume,” he says, “we can’t do it.”
One of the mainstays at St. Peter is a chapel in back of the main building that was built in 1994. It replaced the original chapel of St. Peter’s Orphanage, which had been on the site since 1852, in what is still called St. Peter Village. Although the newer courtyard and building are made along clean modern lines, some of the stained-glass windows from the original chapel have been incorporated into the modern sanctuary. Mass and ecumenical services are offered on different days of the week, and within the chapel complex is an activity center where MIFA meals are served twice a day.
“A lot of people have moved into [St. Peter] knowing there’s a church they don’t have to drive to,” notes Currie.
St. Peter opened in 1978 after Catholic Bishop Carroll T. Dozier established the housing corporation within the local diocese. Before that, a school for orphans had stood on the spot since the mid-1800s, and had weathered its share of yellow fever epidemics. It served an orphanage next door, once run by Catholic sisters, that is now Target House. That’s one of the locations where St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital hosts pediatric cancer patients and their families while they are undergoing treatment.
“The vision of Bishop Dozier was to house all of God’s people,” says Currie, “regardless of race, religious, or other preferences.” For more than 150 years, in many different ways the property at Poplar and McLean has accomplished its goal.