December 11, 2015

Christmas dream comes true for family thanks to Sacred Heart Parish, other churches and housing center

Veronica Villafuerte, center, expresses the gratitude and amazement of her family for the new home they received through the efforts of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis, other churches and The Fuller Center for Housing of Central Indiana. Heather Rayka, left, of The Fuller Center for Housing, Franciscan Father Larry Janezic, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and Jesuit Father Jeremiah Lynch, associate pastor, far right, share in the moment. (Submitted photo)

Veronica Villafuerte, center, expresses the gratitude and amazement of her family for the new home they received through the efforts of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis, other churches and The Fuller Center for Housing of Central Indiana. Heather Rayka, left, of The Fuller Center for Housing, Franciscan Father Larry Janezic, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and Jesuit Father Jeremiah Lynch, associate pastor, far right, share in the moment. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Ever since she became a mother, Veronica Villafuerte has had a dream of the perfect Christmas for her family.

She and her husband and their four children would celebrate the birth of Christ in their own home, all of them together around a glowing evergreen on Christmas morning.

Yet with each passing year, the dream seemed less realistic, even as she worked two jobs to make it possible. There was also the challenge of one of her children being diagnosed with epilepsy.

“My children would ask, ‘Mom, can we get a house now?’ ” recalls Villafuerte, who is 34. “It broke my heart to know that financially we were not at that point. My response was always ‘almost.’ They didn’t argue, but accepted it and knew that I was really trying. We teach our kids that life is tough, but no matter how tough life is you have to embrace it and enjoy it.”

This Christmas, the joy will flow as the family celebrates the holy day in their first house—an early present that became a reality through their own hard work, the efforts of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Indianapolis, and the support of several Christian churches and a housing center on the city’s south side.

It’s a story of how the gift of “family” sometimes extends far beyond its usual definition. It’s also a story of how the faith that binds people across denominations can create the hope and the promise that are at the heart of Christmas.

A ‘hand-up’ to a better life

More than any other day, Christmas is the one where dreams and memories converge most fully. And the dreams of the Villafuerte family are now forever tied to the memories of John Sauter.

Sauter and his wife Veronica are members of Sacred Heart Parish, even though they live on the northeast side of Indianapolis. As they make the 35-minute drive to the near south side church every Sunday morning for Mass, they return to a place and a neighborhood that has a deep emotional connection for Sauter.

“My dad grew up on Union Street where Sacred Heart is,” he says. “That’s why it’s near and dear to me. We have a lot of older parishioners. There’s a lot of nostalgia about the area for them. They talk about there being hundreds of kids in the neighborhood. When the church bells rang, there would be all these people walking to church.”

That scene has mostly disappeared today, but it’s one that Sauter has kept in his mind as he has searched for a way to make a difference in his retirement.

Turning his attention to the area around Sacred Heart, Sauter learned that nearly 65 percent of the housing in the area is rental property. So the challenge became, “How do we improve the quality of life and make the area a growing, vibrant family neighborhood as it was long ago?”

For Sauter, the answer is, “Increase owner-occupied housing with families who will invest in the neighborhood as part of their future—lifting the future for the entire area, one home and family at a time.”

That effort started between Sacred Heart Parish and the Old Southside Neighborhood Association. It has grown to include a number of local businesses, the Southport Presbyterian Church, the Southport Christian Church, the East 91st Street Christian Church, and the Southside Catholic Business Professionals. A crucial part of the plan is the involvement of The Fuller Center for Housing of Central Indiana.

“The Fuller Center is in the business of building and rebuilding homes and lives with hope, hard work, determination, prayer and God’s love,” Sauter says about the non-profit, Christian housing ministry. “They believe in offering those in need not a ‘hand-out’ but a ‘hand-up’ to a better life.”

With that belief in mind, the search began for a worthy family to get the first new house in the neighborhood in years.

Living the American dream

The Villafuerte family topped the list after the parish checked the families in the area who benefitted from the services of the Indianapolis chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“We recommended them to Fuller,” Sauter says. “We thought they were the perfect family for this house. They are conscientious, and their kids all believe they’ll go to college. They’re a young family, a hard-working family.”

Their work ethic was evident after The Fuller Center’s staff agreed with the parish’s recommendation that the family would live up to the terms and payments of owning the house.

During the three weeks the house was being built this fall, Jose Villafuerte used his skills as a roofer to put on the roof. And the oldest child, 16-year-old Kassandra, spent her two weeks of fall break from high school to do insulation work on the house.

“Kassandra is the oldest, so she’s been through the rough times with me,” her mom says. “This is what she wanted more than anything. She wanted us to be stable. We love this house. It’s beautiful.”

Sauter also feels blessed by the difference the house has meant to the family.

“I saw this as a chance to change somebody’s life,” he says. “I feel very good about the family getting this opportunity. They’re just trying to live the American dream. And to see different faiths come together to make this happen is neat to see.”

There is also the hope that the first house is just the beginning.

A homecoming of faith

That is the dream of Sauter and Sacred Heart’s pastor, Franciscan Father Larry Janezic.

“For years, we’ve been doing minor repairs on homes as a form of outreach as a Catholic community, but we wanted to do something more substantive, and we think we’re on a good track here,” the pastor says about the connection between the parish and the Fuller Center.

“It’s important to the parish on two levels. One, it’s another dimension of our outreach. And two, it has the potential to build up the parish. But I would emphasize the outreach. We’re supposed to be mindful and caring of our environment. We hope to put up a few more houses in the near future.”

To achieve that goal, more volunteers and resources are needed, the pastor says. And Sauter adds that he hopes other parishes in the archdiocese will become part of this effort in an economically struggling area.

“This could change the neighborhood, but Sacred Heart can’t do this on our own,” he says. “Future builds will depend on how successful we are in getting businesses and benefactors to donate, and possibly sponsor the builds. The Fuller Center will support as many builds as we can get funding for.”

Villafuerte says the new house is a game-changer for her family, including the three younger children, Luis, Irene and Jazmin.

“We’re going to enjoy the holidays more,” she says. “We’ve always done Christmas at other relatives’ houses. This will be our first Christmas at home. It makes me very emotional, very grateful and very proud. I’m going to feel good that our kids will be able to run down the stairs to get their Christmas presents. They won’t get a lot of Christmas presents, but we’ll be in our home.”

That sense of home also extends to the one they have found at Sacred Heart Parish, she says. She has signed up her children at the parish to receive the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation. She also plans to receive the sacrament of confirmation herself.

It’s all part of this Christmas being a homecoming for her—a homecoming of faith.

“For a while, I felt that God had forgotten me. But going through this process and getting this house, I feel that God is telling me, ‘I haven’t forgotten you. I am here.’ ”
 

(For any individual, group or parish wanting to help Sacred Heart Parish in this effort, visit the website, www.sacredheartindy.org, or contact John Sauter at sauterindy@yahoo.com. There will also be an informational meeting about the housing effort at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 11 at Sacred Heart Parish Hall, 1125 S. Meridian Street, in Indianapolis.)

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