The Story of St Anne's Home
How Love and Prayer turned into Action
As originally recorded by Hermolyne Liles, one of the founders of St Anne’s
As I was cruising at Lake Mitchell today, November 21, 1964, I was struck by the idea of writing the story of St. Anne’s, as I know it, for a gift to my special friends. Some of you have asked me to do this. The first request, as I recall, was from one of you who lived at St. Anne’s.
I begin by examining my own motives. I confess that there are words within me crying out to be written. You who are my alcoholic friends tell me I am a dry alcoholic. Perhaps this compulsion proves your point. I know that the greater story of St. Anne’s is being written in the lives of each person involved, but my human frailty desires to make a record of what God has done. Several of you have told me that my gift is not preaching, but just this once, allow me the luxury of taking no thought of what I shall say, knowing that you, like my heavenly Father, love me just as I am, even as I love you.
Deeper than my desire to communicate with you or to express myself, is the hope that this will be a testament of my devotion to God for what he has done. Thomas Kelley’s “Testament of Devotion” has been an inspiration to me, and I trust he approves of my coining his phrase. I have told many groups of church women, those who have graciously invited me to tell the story of St. Anne’s, that God has worked this miracle more in spite of us than because of us. I undertake this prayerfully.
The story began, for me, in September, 1963, when I welcomed the United Church Women to Canterbury Methodist Church for their Leadership Training Day. I wandered innocently into the Christian Social Relations workshop where Mrs. Frank Longino introduced a person who was to have a profound effect on my life. She was Chairman of Service in Jails, and I learned later (not from her) that she had been going to the City Jail, known as Southside, every Tuesday for more than 15 years. This was Ila Cantley who introduced another powerful individual, Mr. B. F. Simms, Supervisor of Rehabilitation of Alcoholics.
Mr. Simms told us about a lady he had just visited at Southside, who had been there some 50 times in the past 20 years – her crime: alcohol sickness. She was a dramatic example of the revolving door problem caused by the lack of any place for women to go when they left the jail. She needed a place where she would be accepted. He told us about the State Rehabilitation program which includes medical, psychiatric, therapeutic and vocational services, pointing out that a home was the missing link for women and asking the church women to consider this as a project. His punch line, was: “ There are four shelters for men and a humane society for animals, but no place in the City of Birmingham where a woman with alcohol sickness can live while she is being treated. “ As I left that day, I gave Ila Cantley my name and told her I wanted to visit the jail.
The following week, I drove to Auburn with Caroline Sparks to take her daughter to school, and we went on to Calloway Gardens for a short rest. Caroline and I had often prayed for alcoholics. In this idyllic setting, dedicated to the memory of a woman, I told her of the need for a home for women in Birmingham. Calloway Gardens has been compared to the Garden of Eden, and apparently it was a good place for the first prayer. We claimed Jesus’ promise, “Where two of you agree as touching anything on earth, it shall be done by my Father who is in heaven.”
About a week later, as Caroline was having her quiet time, she heard a familiar Voice from within that so often says, “You are the one!” She called Mr. Simms to offer her home for women, until we could find another location. After he recovered from the initial shock, he began to let us to work with him. We visited the jail with Ila and met a woman who would be coming out in about a month. We gave her first name to prayers groups and asked for prayers to provide a home for her. On the day she was released, the husband of a prayer group member told us that she was welcome in their home. I took this first resident to the Spearman’s home in October, 1963. They shared their home for several weeks, until we had a second applicant, at which time we set up housekeeping in the basement at the Spearman’s home.
Our first location had only one bedroom, and we could accommodate no more than three women. This was good because there was much to do and even more to learn. The suburban location required miles of transporting. We did the grocery shopping and the women did their own housekeeping. Prayer groups donated essential items. There were good days, like the one when a woman told Judge Lagner she had found God and was planning a new life, and there were bad days, like the one when Janie slipped out of the psychiatrist’s office and was never seen again, not even taking the warm clothing we had given her. But we were leaning that love finds it mark whether we see it or not.
In March, we realized it was time for another big leap of faith. We needed a large house and housemother. We called together some fifteen interested individuals, some of them husbands, who agreed with us. We could not continue to operate the home and still keep our own happy homes. These individuals provided capital and a basic organization, along with spiritual strength.
Recollection of the next two months is somewhat of a nightmare as Caroline and I searched for a house. Jim Fletcher kindly showed us what he thought would be suitable, but we searched on our own many times. After what I would call “the breakthrough,” we realized we should have waited on the Lord. In April, we met Jim at 2758 Hanover Circle and shared the assurance: This is it! Flay Mills planned to rent her mother’s home unfurnished. Caroline asked for an appointment with her so we could tell her why we wanted the house. By the end of the story, Flay was with us and volunteered most of the furniture as well as herself. Additional furnishings have been given by many.
Now, faith had been transformed into bricks. We had seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. We called a board meeting at which Charlotte Kieffer, our attorney, said we must have a name. She suggested St. Anne’s for Jesus’ grandmother, who, according to tradition, had a lovely home. This was seconded by Marion Hale, a Baptist member of the board, just to indicate that not only Catholics and Episcopalians approve of using the names of saints. We felt a name was important, particularly to those who would live here. It has seemed to lend itself well to individual interpretations. Since our whole purpose has been a home in the highest meaning of the word, the tie with Jesus’ family is significant.
We realized from the beginning that a housemother must be uniquely qualified. We now had the house and no housemother. So often it has appeared to us that God has operated backwards. Remember we had residents before we had a house.
Caroline called Fae McKerall to talk to her about someone who had come to mind, and Fae suggested Elizabeth Lindsay of Quincy, Florida. Caroline telephoned her, and she came to Birmingham. Although she had already accepted another position that was to begin the next week, there never seemed to be any doubt in her mind or ours as to what she would do. She returned to Florida, and came driving back in a station wagon that she had acquired in a traded for her bucket-seat, air-conditioned, sports car. She said she knew we would need a station wagon. Words completely fail me to describe a person who had dedicated her life to God in this selfless way. She describes herself as a redeemed alcoholic. From May 20, 1964, when St. Anne’s door opened, much of the story could only be told by Elizabeth Lindsay.
I took the first resident from Southside to St. Anne’s. It had been her privilege since to tell me and many others that she prayed, as she walked in the house, that the Lord would take away from her the desire for alcohol. She says, “He did.” Some experiences have not been so dramatic. All, however, have been meaningful. Not all have come from the jail. St. Anne’s is open to any alcoholic woman who wants a new life and is willing to take advantage of all rehabilitation opportunities. An investment of eight weeks time was required. Alcoholism is no respecter of anything. Age – in our short history, the span has been 20’s to 60’s. Educationally, residents have ranged from elementary to master’s degree. This illness is variously listed as the No. 1 to No. 4 health problem in the United States. There are more than 5,000 in Jefferson County.
Once we were in operation, we could present St. Anne’s to those who asked. From the beginning, we wanted no publicity and knew we would never solicit funds, and this policy was incorporated in our by-laws. We are not sponsored by an organization. United Church Women is our pipe line to church women in Birmingham, who are the main source of service and gifts. UAW has printed and mailed information and filmed a colored movie “Adventure in Faith: that we show to groups. It has been an awesome experience for me to observe the overwhelming interest of church women. Another major source of support is Alcoholics Anonymous. Two members were among the fifteen first contacted and continued most actively. The residents usually attend two AA meetings a week. Member have led discussions in the home on the Twelve Steps of their spiritual program.
Governmental and civic groups have given unqualified cooperation: Warden Austing and Polly Walter at the City jail, Mr. Hurt and Mr. Simms of Rehabilitation, Mr. Waddell at the Clinic on Alcoholism, Mr. Sessions, psychiatric consultant, Judge Langner of Recorders Court, Charlotte Ives of the Jefferson County Mental Health Association Committee on Alcoholism, Charity League, a list by no means complete.
The first time I talked to Warden Austin, he said, “If you are busy in your church, you don’t have time for this work.” He said that during his twenty-six years there, he had not always slept well at night, knowing he had turned women out on the street with no place to go. Last week I heard a man say, “I was fed up with all the talk about Christian principles and so little action, but at St. Anne’s, I have seen Christianity in action, and it has done something for me.” It makes me think of when the women I have come to know and love at St. Anne’s are so amazed that we care and that we even seem to understand their illness. Their acceptance of each other, whether they come from Southside Jail or Mountain Brook has done something for me
When Gert Behanna spoke at St. Anne’s recently, she said, “I believe Alcoholics Anonymous is God’s gift to the 20th Century. It is like the early church.” I believe St. Anne’s in God’s gift to Birmingham. At this Christmas season, 1964, I thank Him for this living expression of His love which is dedicated to His glory.