It's a striking visual — a neat garden with a statue of Jesus weeping over a bullet-ridden body right in the center of it. The garden is the new addition to the Father Augustus Tolton Peace Center, a community service center operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and located at 5645 W. Corcoran Place, inside the former ABC Bank building.
Both the center and the garden are part of the Catholic Charities' mission to address the root causes of violence and the trauma associated with it. Christine Richardson, the regional director of community relations for Catholic Charities and the center's head of outreach, said that the garden was meant to be a place for quiet contemplation and healing.
Although the center has been operational since November, the garden didn't officially open until May 24. During a short ceremony that day, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, blessed both the garden and the center.
Cupich and other Catholic Charities officials said that the center is named after Augustus Tolton, a former slave and the first African American to be ordained a Catholic priest. Tolton originally ministered in Quincy before moving to Chicago's South Side, where he became the face of Catholic Charity's philanthropic efforts. Tolton died at 43 of a heat stroke during a heat wave that swept through the city in 1897.
The center provides a range of services designed to address residents' basic needs, such as help with getting food, employment, housing and financial assistance. It also offers a number of programs that address mental health and trauma, including treatment for youth and adults who survived abuse, suicide prevention, restorative justice services and a violence prevention program.
As trains rumbled nearby, Cupich told the crowd that the center was a product of the archdiocese's push to address the root causes of violence.
"We know that people who were hurt don't necessarily respond in appropriate ways," he said. "We want to give them those resources."
The cardinal added that the center is also a way to reaffirm the church's commitment to the people of Austin.
"The center is a statement that the Catholic Church and Catholic Charities want to walk with people," he said. "[We want to] make a difference, to tell people in the neighborhood – we are here with you, and we're here to stay."
When asked about the peace garden statue and the potential implications of its imagery, Cupich said that it evokes the many Biblical stories of mothers losing children, the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus decrying violence.
"I think it speaks to the heartbreak violence brings," he said, adding that he hopes that the statue will inspire empathy.
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