St. Mary’s Center History
1930 to 1973: The Early Years
The 1930s were a time of extreme deprivation. The Great Depression had taken hold and the members of the congregation of St. Mary’s Church at 7th Street and Jefferson in Oakland were suffering economically. They asked the Sisters of the Holy Names to make the parish school tuition-free so neighborhood children could be educated. In 1939, sensing that more assistance was needed, Father Charlie Phillips invited the Sisters of Social Service to come to St. Mary’s Church. Living up to their name, the sisters responded to the needs of the community, providing basic services for Filipinos and Latinos, especially women and children. There were also youth groups, art classes, and social clubs.
In 1942 the sisters employed a Spanish-speaking program staff to engage the neighborhood. There was also a residence house for unemployed women, a soup kitchen for the hungry, a free clothing center, legal aid, and dental services. The sisters worked tirelessly at St. Mary’s until 1969. A lack of funding forced the parish school to close in 1971.
1973 – 1992: St. Mary’s Center Reignited
A neighborhood organizing project reignited St. Mary’s Center in 1973, when West Oaklanders named their concerns. Overwhelmingly, residents said that they wanted their elders to be taken care of and their young children to have a preschool. Supported by St. Mary’s Church, program staff initiated outreach and advocacy programs to seniors, started a preschool, and delivered parent/Infant education and youth programs.
Local parishes started a cornerstone volunteer effort, Sunday Dinners, to provide a needed meal for the elderly on Sundays, when neighborhood stores and restaurants were closed. More than 40 years later, volunteers still bring dinner on Sundays for our senior participants.
In 1979, St. Mary’s Center helped open a senior housing development. St. Mary’s Garden, at 801 10th St, opened to provide 100 low-income seniors with a one-bedroom apartment. It is currently operated by Christian Church Homes.
The 1980s brought the phenomenon of visible homeless people. Responding to an overwhelming need, St. Mary’s began a new program, Homeless Senior Services, to stabilize people and help them find housing. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which destroyed or rendered uninhabitable many Single Residence Occupancy residential hotels, this program really took hold and greatly expanded.
1992 – Today: A Separate Nonprofit
St. Mary’s Center established a separate identity in 1992 when it incorporated as a nonprofit. A few years later it moved to 22nd St. and San Pablo. There the Winter Emergency Shelter opened and our preschool received state certification, which meant we could receive some funding to operate it.
We upgraded our Homeless Services staff in 2002 to include professionally licensed social workers and recovery counselors to provide more effective approaches to mental illness and substance use.
In 2005, St. Mary’s Center mounted a $7 million campaign to purchase and renovate a property at 925 Brockhurst, which is home to its current facilities: Homeless Senior Services, a community center, and the preschool.
In 2008 we purchased an adjacent property which became Closer to Home, our first permanent supportive housing facility. Closer to Home uses common living areas with separate bedrooms to help homeless seniors transition from the street to more independent housing.
Expanding our Closer to Home model, in 2014, St. Mary’s Center purchased another home a few blocks from our facilities owned by the Sisters of the Presentation Ireland. Presentation House opened its doors in early 2015.
Today we provide social services to seniors and a preschool education to neighborhood children. Our programs incorporate extensive services for homeless seniors, resources to help low-income seniors “age in place”, a community center to combat isolation, and a lively preschool and parent education program.