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Preparing for a memorial service for the families, Notre Dame Sister Stephanie Matcha at the Siena/Francis House in Omaha lights one of more than 75 candles representing homeless men and women who died in the last year and were served by five Omaha-area shelters. Each shelter will hold a memorial service this month. Photo by Lisa Spellman for the Catholic Voice.

December prayer services mark the deaths of homeless men, women

Her name – Lisa – is written in black, bold letters in an elegant, swirly style across the white piece of paper carefully taped to the glass globe.

Janis Boos cradles the globe in her hand as she waits for the white candle it contains to be lit by Notre Dame Sister Stephanie Matcha, a case manager at Siena/Francis House and chair of the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless.

Lisa was her friend and Boos wants to be the one to commemorate the life of a woman she knew all too briefly when Boos came in 2011 as a homeless client to the Siena/Francis House in Omaha.

The candle lighting is an example of the kind of ceremony that took place Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 at all five Omaha-area shelters as the lives of Lisa and other homeless men and women who died over the past year are memorialized at ecumenical services.


26-year tradition

And it’s not the first time. Similar services have been held for the past 26 years, sponsored by the Continuum of Care, a coalition of homeless shelters and advocates for the homeless.

Each shelter director submits for the memorial services the names of homeless clients who have passed away either in local hospitals or on the street. Those names are compiled and shared, and this year more than 75 people will be memorialized at each service, with prayers, songs, poems and reflections.

"For some it’s the only service that’s being held in their memory," said Sister Matcha, who has been a case manager at the Siena/Francis House for 19 years.

Each service is tailored to reflect the variety of faiths of the clients who have died and could include prayers from the Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Native American traditions, she said.

The annual memorial services, started in 1990 by the National Coalition for the Homeless, are held in more than 150 cities across the nation, in a tradition the coalition calls Dec. 21 National Person’s Memorial Day.

"It’s the first day of winter and the longest night of the year," said Steve Frazaa, senior program director at the Open Door Mission in Omaha.

Symbolically, it recognizes the struggle through darkness that so many homeless people face daily, Frazaa said.


Five homeless shelters

Along with the Siena/Francis House and Open Door Mission, shelters holding services include the Stephen Center in Omaha and Micah House and New Vision/MOHM’S Place, both in Council Bluffs.

At Siena/Francis House, more than 200 people will gather in a shelter cafeteria, where a candle will be lit as each person’s name is read.

Homeless clients of the shelter, staff, family and friends of the deceased, and anyone who wants to pray for those who have died are invited.

Boos, who now works at the Siena/Francis House women’s shelter, said she considers it a privilege to take part in the memorial service, and a way of making peace with the death of people whose lives have impacted her so profoundly.

Boos met Lisa the same year Lisa came to the shelter. She watched her friend struggle with addiction and depression, even as Boos flourished, successfully completing the shelter’s rehabilitation program.


Time to grieve

"There is so much tragedy and moments of crisis at the shelter on a daily basis, that you don’t really have time to take a moment to grieve when someone dies," Boos said. "This service gives us the opportunity to reflect on their lives, their value as human beings, as children of God."

Shoes take the place of candles at the Open Door Mission’s memorial service.

"Borrowed, used, practical, the shoes really capture the flavor of our clients and personalize the service in a unique way," Frazaa said.

The Stephen Center’s service will be in a main conference room.

"It’s important to treat people with dignity and this service allows us to do that in a special way," said Mike Wehling, Stephen Center’s executive director.

The center uses LED candles, which will be turned on as each name is read. A former client who volunteers at the shelter will play the acoustic guitar.

"The first time I attended a service it was very moving," Wehling said. "This year will be especially meaningful because I recognize the name of one of the individuals being memorialized as someone who grew up in the same south Omaha neighborhood I did."


Dec. 20

7:30 p.m., Open Door Mission’s Garland Thompson Men’s Center, 2706 N. 21st St., Omaha


Dec. 21

2 p.m., Micah House, Donors Circle Charles E. Lakin Human Services Campus, 1415 Ave. J, Council Bluffs

4 p.m., Stephen Center, main conference room, 2723 Q St., Omaha

4:15 p.m., Siena/Francis House, Baright Shelter cafeteria,
1111 N. 17th St., Omaha

5 p.m., New Vision/MOHM’S Place, 1435 N. 15th St., Council Bluffs

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