Kind eyes are what you first notice as Father Enzo Addari speaks with loving compassion for the disvalued of society. Before long, his gentle smile, calm Spirit-filled presence and thick Italian accent unwrap you like a warm blanket. Spending time with this unassuming, humble man enables you to understand why Joe Yekulis, public relations director for the St. Louis Center, a nonprofit residential care facility for boys and adult men and women with developmental disabilities, tells you, "Nobody says no to Father Enzo."
Born in Corcumello, Italy, Father Enzo was ordained in 1976 to the Servants of Charity Congregation, based in Rome. Their mission is to promote life through service to the poor throughout the world. Father Enzo says, “We are like soldiers. We go where we are sent.” Two years after ordination, he arrived in the United States to begin his particular ministry – a ministry that is Spirit-fed, not an assignment.
Father Enzo’s first nudging emerged from the discomfort he felt as a young boy when he witnessed the disparaging way a disabled youth in his village was treated. Another nudging came about because of the location of his seminary – adjacent to a home providing for the needs of those with a disability. Daily interaction with the residents was the norm for him. As a member of the Servants of Charity, he chose to work among those with developmental disabilities.
Father Enzo is now the administrator of St. Louis Center, located in Chelsea, Mich., a role he filled from 1991 to 1997 and then resumed in 2008. The mission of the center is clear to him: “It is to be a lighthouse in a world that doesn’t consider people with disabilities to have value. Everything about the center is to promote the life of these people. They have an integral dignity because of who they are. They are made in the image and likeness of God and the mystery of redemption is true for them as well.”
The St. Louis Center began in the 1960s with the creation of the St. Louis School for Exceptional Boys when Washtenaw County was part of the Archdiocese of Detroit. In 1958, Cardinal Edward Mooney requested that the Servants of Charity operate a new boarding school for 60 cognitively disabled boys between the ages of 6 and 18. When mainstreaming into the public schools became commonplace in the 1980s, the school added a growth plan for its residents, some of whom were then 18 and would need continuing care as adults. Under the original plan, boys would need to relocate at age 18. This new vision of including adults meant the St. Louis Center needed to increase its physical space and shape a new identity.
In the early 2000s, a residential home for cognitively disabled women in Northville, then under the direction of the Daughters of St. Mary Providence, was closed. St. Louis Center opened its arms to these residents, converting a section of the facility to accommodate 10 adult women with developmental disabilities. These changes were the catalyst for the center’s shift in mission to youth and adult care, from serving only youth, in order to meet the ongoing needs of an aging baby boomer population.
The center is home to 15 males under age 18, and 35 adult men and women. Statistics show that 75 percent of adults with a cognitive disability live at home under the care of their parents. The obvious question is: If and when something happens to their parents, where will they go? St. Louis Center is aiming to raise $10 million through its current Legacy Campaign to “Upgrade, Update and Uplift,” which will give the center the ability to be that solution for more adults. Twenty adult men and women are on the center’s waiting list. As its vision is achieved, the center will offer a partnership with parents to provide the legacy of a loving home for their adult children when the parents are no longer able.
The St. Louis Center, on 180 acres, is more than a facility to Father Enzo and its 50 residents – it is their home. In addition to 70 staff members who cycle through various shifts each day, four Servants of Charity priests live on-site full-time. Father Enzo credits this permanent living situation as the most stabilizing factor in providing safety, security and love at all times. “We are an essential part of their lives and it works both ways. We are a family,” he explains.
The familial power and love that unite this St. Louis Center family are demonstrated in two poignant stories shared of young men, ages 26 and 11. Both were scheduled to be relocated to another center or private home, yet the young men refused to get in the car to leave. Tears flowed freely as they declared St. Louis Center their family, the only home they had known. For Father Enzo, moments like these reinforce the center’s power in working with and valuing those who are mostly disvalued by society. This power he attributes to God’s love.
Father Enzo also believes in an expression espoused by the founder of his order, St. Luigi Guanella, which is to share “Bread and Lord.” Living by these words enables one to feed the whole person – physically, mentally and spiritually. Both “Bread and Lord” are essential to one’s existence. For Father Enzo, these three words are a constant guiding principle in the operation of the center.
Naming God’s call to the priesthood as his proudest moment and following the Gospel of Luke for his direction, Father Enzo adds, “This life is challenging, beautiful and rewarding for the things we can accomplish together for the people God has entrusted to our care.” The city of Chelsea and several southeastern Michigan communities not only offer financial support to the center, but also embrace the residents as viable, contributing individuals. In addition, many Knights of Columbus councils and Italian-American clubs have become staunch supporters. Father Enzo stresses how important the support of these organizations and communities is to the center.
Reciprocally, the residents give back to the larger community. St. Louis Center opens its facilities to the local community to attend daily Mass and use its gym services. In a soft voice filled with wonder and awe, Father Enzo shared how powerfully the residents unintentionally evangelize: “Individuals often tell me they have come back to God’s embrace or had a conversion experience simply by their brief encounters with the residents.” When people tell Father Enzo how burdened they are by life, “I invite them to share Mass with us at the center. Inevitably, they leave with a new perspective on how much they have been gifted with, rather than by, their burdens.”
Father Enzo Addari sums up ongoing growth in faith this way, “By being active in service to others, every day we deepen God’s call in our lives and are able to see more. God calls. It is discipleship. God continues to speak to all of us through the events of our life. If we listen, we find ways to move ahead and contribute to those in need.” With ongoing support, the St. Louis Center will move forward with its plans to expand and accommodate the needs of an ever-aging population of adults with developmental disabilities.