For more than 25 years Franciscan Peacemakers, has quietly and consistently worked to provide a pathway to a sustainable healthy, safe, and productive life for women engaging in prostitution due to trauma, human sex trafficking or drug addiction.
Founded by Fr. Bob Wheelock, pastor of St Elizabeth, and Fr. Mike Sullivan, pastor of St. Ben’s, and later joined by Deacon Steve Przedpelski, Executive Director of the organization, Franciscan Peacemakers connects women survivors of sexual exploitation to safe housing, meaningful work, and a healing network of support. The organization works toward ending human sex trafficking through service and advocacy, believing that everyone is created to enjoy peace and all good. They minister on the streets of Milwaukee reaching out primarily to women engaging in prostitution, but also to the homeless and families living in poverty. Operating on a ‘no-judgment’ premise, they canvass the streets, passing out bag lunches and personal care items, and offering a listening ear and hugs. They sometimes provide referrals to agencies able to address the complexity of women’s needs given histories of trauma and abuse, as they solidify their trust among the women and build upon those relationships.
“We don’t always see the ‘fruits of our labor,’ but we consistently and compassionately are there for them. When it’s cold outside, when they need warmer clothing, a hot cup of coffee or just someone to talk to—we are there. We don’t judge them. It sometimes takes months or even years of encouragement, support and compassion to get them to believe that they can change their lives,” said Deacon Przedpelski.
Przedpelski laments that sometimes donors and others wonder if they are wasting their time because their efforts don’t always produce immediate outcomes.
“We never regard what we do as a waste of time. We get frustrated, but we never lose sight of our end-goal, and when it pays off—when we’re able to get one woman to turn her life around, it makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
Though currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Franciscan Peacemakers Hospitality Center opened in August 2019 to provide a respite from the streets for an average of 12- 15 women per morning on Lisbon Avenue. The sanctuary provides a place to meet basic needs (restrooms and food) while also offering an opportunity for longer conversations with Franciscan Peacemakers staff.
Franciscan Peacemakers also operates Clare Community, a residential facility for women who want to turn their lives around. Clare Community is a two-year, spiritually based program which provides rent-free housing to women who live in the facility full-time during their recovery and healing. This two-year period allows a woman to really transform her life by helping to build employment skills, confidence, and a strong network of support.
One of the unique aspects of Franciscan Peacemakers is that the organization has literally turned lemons into lemonade, as it operates a social enterprise of manufacturing and selling soaps, lotions, and candles to support its programming, while simultaneously providing job training skills to the women.
“Women who live in Clare Community also receive job training. They learn employment and soft skills such as the importance of being on time, following directions, and accountability, said Mary Leach-Sumlin, Associate Director of Franciscan Peacemakers and Director of Clare Community.
“We also teach the women to make the bath products and sell them at various events such as craft fairs and farmers’ markets, but only up to their level of comfort. They are paid for working and required to save half of their earnings so that when they complete the program, they have funds to start living independently,” said Leach-Sumlin.
Franciscan Peacemakers’ Clare Community, which opened its doors in 2014, was inspired by the model of Magdalen House in Nashville (now known as Thistle Farms). The reality is that programs serving women lasted only 60-90 days. Afterwards, left to their own devices, many of the women served relapse or return to the streets. Clare Community, which has space to accommodate three women at a time, walks with the women— giving and helping them heal—mind, body, and spirit.
Cynthia Perkins came to Franciscan Peacemakers more than two years ago as a client and is now one of the organization’s success stories. For the past year she has worked as a Peer Support Specialist with the organization.
“I was brought to Milwaukee and left here by my now ex-husband. I struggled with being homeless on and off for 14 years. I had been on the streets for years and during that time had regular encounters with Peacemakers. They kept showing up, never judging me, and telling me that I was valuable. That consistency helps build your self-worth. Many people struggle because of the things they’ve experienced and the things they do. It really destroys your self-value. They gave me an opportunity and a chance to do something different and now I’m just doing with others what they did for me. People are hurting but I know that with continued love, kindness, and support—when they are ready—people can and do change.
“Sometimes people wonder how situations happen for people. I know from my own experience that bad things do happen to people— it’s a combination of everything on top of more stuff. I also know that with a little love and support, these ladies can overcome any situation,” said Perkins.
“Before entering Clare Community, we require our residents to go through detox for three to seven days and be free of active drug use. They must stay in transitional housing for at least 30 days to demonstrate their commitment to sobriety. After that, we accept them. Sometimes they just aren’t strong enough to do it alone. Having a support system helps the women become more successful,” said Sumlin-Leach.
Franciscan Peacemakers welcomes the community’s support by donating hats, scarves, and gloves, and of course finances. While the respite center, located at 1756 N. 34th Street, is closed due to the coronavirus, women are still served at the door. Products may be purchased in the store, located at 3333 W Lisbon Avenue, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 12 Noon, or online at www.franciscanpeacemakers.org. You can call (414) 559- 3479 for more information. As we enter this season of giving, it’s a perfect opportunity to support a great cause, and purchase gifts for the holiday season.