Construction begins on Pope Francis House

Local Catholics, Archbishop Jackels at groundbreaking

By Dan Russo | Witness Editor

DSC_0072CEDAR RAPIDS — They didn’t have to dig the entire foundation the day of the recent groundbreaking for the Pope Francis House in Cedar Rapids, but the way Kaneil Jones, Evie Kunz and her sister Alena were energetically working with the shovels after the official ceremony ended, you’d think that was the goal.

Jones, 9, a student at Grant Elementary School, is part of the family that has been selected to live in the home being built through Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity (CVHFH) with support from an anonymous donor and a large cross section of the local Catholic community. The Kunz sisters that assisted Jones in digging are students at St. Pius X Catholic Elementary, part of a group from the school that came to the festivities May 26 at the lot in the 400 block of 8th Avenue SW.

Archbishop Michael Jackels joined representatives of CVHFH, Xavier Catholic High School’s show choir Xhilaration, the Knights of Columbus, members of Cedar Rapids’ Catholic parishes, representatives of Mt. Mercy University, and a whole host of other guests at the groundbreaking. Those in attendance prayed, sang and reflected on the project that was about to be undertaken.

“It’s going to take all of us together to make this happen,” the archbishop told the crowd, shortly after he had picked up his own shovel to move the first bits of earth with Laura Brown, the single mother of two who leads the family that will live in the house named after the pope.

During the closing prayer, Archbishop Jackels asked God to provide “all the necessary funds” and that “whatever time and skills are needed be put at the service of this project.”

“We ask Your blessing on this house that will grace this lot,” he added.

The Pope Francis House is Habitat’s 21st home to be built on a core, flood-impacted lot in Cedar Rapids since 2011. In late 2014, CVHFH received a call from an anonymous donor who wished to make a $60,000 gift to support the construction of the new home with local partners. The donor challenged local Catholics, and others, to then contribute an additional $40,000 to cover the balance of a local home sponsorship. While that fundraising effort continues, the local community already has responded with significant financial support and the promise to help staff the home with volunteers throughout the summer months.

The CVHFH Pope Francis House is one of many such homes being built around the country, with all projects embracing these same tenets:

“To honor Pope Francis for his commitment to social justice & reinvigorating the Catholic Church

To provide a unifying, celebratory opportunity for both Catholic and non-Catholic volunteers to work towards a common goal (as Pope Francis says, ‘Work confers dignity’)

And to further Habitat’s mission of building and preserving homes.”

Jeff Capps, CVHFH executive director, made a few remarks at the ceremony, recalling the day he first told Brown her family had been selected for the project.

“When we first told Laura this was going to be the Pope Francis House, she was like ‘That’s great! What does that mean?’” said Capps, with a smile.

The organization has raised about half of the remaining $40,000 needed to fund the home, according to Capps, and is still actively seeking donations and volunteers. He is hoping the cause draws many people to help.

“This is a community effort,” he said. “I hope that as many people as possible will get engaged.”

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian charity that builds home for people in need. In the Cedar Valley area, the group has built 140 homes overall, with two thirds of them going up since the flood of 2008 that devastated Cedar Rapids.

Those who receive the homes must complete at least 300 hours of work in building them, take classes and be engaged in the process. The families are given a no interest mortgage and must provide a small down payment. They are then required to pay back the mortgage to the charity over time.

Laura Brown was selected for the Pope Francis House after submitting a successful application.

“I know a couple of people who have succeeded through their program,” she said.

Brown has been raising her two children Kaneil and Laurionna, 11, in Cedar Rapids for the past 11 years. She also recently took on the responsibility of raising her 15-year-old niece, Kaylah. Through years of paying expensive rent at many substandard apartment complexes, the family has been forced to move many times. Brown felt it was time to make the transition to a long term stable home. At the groundbreaking, she said she is “excited” to get started with the home building process. She took a moment to address those at the ceremony.

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out to support me and my kids,” she told the crowd. “It means a lot to us.”

Scripture readings led by Sister Joellen Price, of St. Pius X Parish, and music by the St. Pius students and the Xavier show choir were featured during the ceremony.

Matt Walker, the choir director, and student singer Jacob Francios, said they both plan to support the project.

“I think we’ll be very successful,” said Walker. “I hope people see this and start asking questions.”

“I plan on helping out this summer,” added Francios.

He is aiming to recruit a crew from the choir to volunteer to work with him. There is a sign on the property indicating that it is the site of the Pope Francis House.

Capps said there are 10 construction days scheduled so far for volunteers from churches and organizers are hoping construction is done by the late summer/ early fall.

“We feel truly blessed by this unique opportunity to recognize an exceptional spiritual leader and humanitarian in Pope Francis, while honoring God by serving a family in need,” said Capps in a statement released ahead of the ground breaking. “It is further proof to us that, when people come together through humble and selfless actions, miraculous things can happen.”

Aside from the Catholic organizations mentioned, the project is also being supported by Wells Fargo, the city of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Economic Authority.

Twitter users can follow the construction progress of Pope Francis House Projects at #popefrancishouse. For more information, including volunteer opportunities or donations, visit, call 319-366-4485 or email


This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.