A former convent in Lewiston is now a safe haven for a small community of women
Women who have survived a trifecta of traumatic, adverse experiences—sex trafficking or exploitation, addiction, and incarceration.
“We’re more than a sober house,” said Sophia House founder Klara Tammany, who lives on the second floor. “We know that often people who struggle with addiction or have been incarcerated were likely exploited, if not trafficked; they just don’t use that language. But their troubles now are rooted in that life-long trauma.”
Six women—all trafficking survivors—will live here for two years, rent free, and receive support services and job training. Each woman will have a room of her own and access to a shared kitchen, bath, living room, and dining room. Five other women who support the mission of the house rent apartments on the first and second floors, covering the cost of running the building—or at least that’s the hope.
This first-of-its-kind program in Maine is coming to fruition now partly because of seeds sown in Lewiston decades ago by two orders of Catholic nuns.
The Sisters of Notre Dame lived in a convent on Bartlett Street, and the Daughters of Wisdom ran a drop-in women’s center called the Center for Wisdom’s Women on Blake Street. The center served hundreds of women in what is called the “B-Street neighborhood” because the streets are named Blake, Bartlett, Birch and Bates. It’s one of the poorest census districts in Maine, where over 40 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line.
With the nuns aging and dwindling in number, the Sisters of Notre Dame closed their convent in 1965. For the same reason, the Daughters of Wisdom were ready to close the Center for Wisdom’s Women in 2008. A core group of volunteers who didn’t want to see the center close persuaded the Daughters of Wisdom to let them run it as a private nonprofit. Tammany served as executive director.
“It’s a weekday drop-in center,” Klara says. “Anyone can come. There’s no charge, no appointments, no paperwork. It’s very low barrier. It is a place to bring women together and support each other in building community and making life better.”
Early on, Klara knew that the needs in the community far surpassed what a drop-in day center could achieve.
“We began to look around and think about the problem behind the conditions we see— including addiction, mental illness, unemployment, diabetes, and obesity,” Klara says. “We learned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the impact of trauma, particularly on women, when it goes unaddressed. ACEs and trauma explain every woman who was coming through our doors. Studies show that the impact of ACEs leads to more isolation. The key is bringing people out of isolation, and it takes a long time.”
For 20 years now, Thistle Farms, based in Nashville, has been providing a two-year program of supportive communities for women who have experienced sex trafficking, addiction, and incarceration.
“The women live together and hold each other accountable, have all the support they need, and live there rent-free for two years on average,” Klara says. “Thistle Farms is highly successful. Two-thirds of the women who start the program finish, and 84 percent remain stable and sober.”
After a visit to Nashville in 2015, Klara had a vision for what the vacant Sisters of Notre Dame convent could be. St. Mary’s Health System, which by then owned the building, first agreed to sell it for $45,000. But the Center for Wisdom’s Women wasn’t going to be approved for a Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston affordable housing grant for half a million dollars of renovations unless the building was donated—and that’s what St. Mary’s did. Two communities of the Sisters of Charity gave significant seed funding, the project obtained historic preservation tax credit approval, and in less than a year, the Center for Wisdom’s Women fundraised the remaining $700,000 needed for Sophia’s House to open without a mortgage.
The first program resident moved in on Dec. 23, 2019 right after she was released from prison. For a few years now, Klara has been connecting with the Maine Correctional Center and county jails to get to know women before they are released and welcome some of them into the Sophia House program.
“When we work with women, I say, ‘Hon, it’s not your fault that you’re in this bind,’” Klara says. “That’s the ACEs pattern, that you were terribly abused or traumatized as a child, so when you’re 12 or 13 you run away from home. When you’re on the street at hat age and you’re hungry and you don’t have a roof over your head, what’s your choice? You go sleep with somebody so you don’t starve to death. And then they hook you into sleeping with other people—for money—or they start giving you drugs so that you’re dependent on them. You eventually are arrested and thrown in jail. When you get out of prison and you have two weeks of meds and $50 in your pocket.”
“When we work with women, I say, ‘Hon, it’s not your fault that you’re in this bind’.”
And the pattern repeats—unless, somehow, it is stopped. The road back from sex trafficking, addiction, and incarceration to love, sobriety, and freedom requires patience, Tammany says. There’s no quick fix in unwinding a lifetime of adverse experiences.
“One six-week intensive outpatient program (IOP) will not undo it on its own,” she says. “Counseling won’t undo it on its own. Medication will not undo it on its own. You have to have community support that is caring and respectful, you have to tend to someone’s inner spirituality, and you have to be trauma and gender-sensitive.”
That’s what Sophia’s House is striving to be—and is becoming. The six survivors in the Sophia House residential program walk to the women’s center and participate in IOP. Health Affiliates Maine is providing mental health therapy, addiction work and case management; Central Maine Medical Center’s Family Medicine Residency is providing physical health care; and the six dentists in town have each agreed to take one patient pro bono. Although all this community support is critical, much of the healing process happens from within—with self forgiveness. And, eventually, women who graduate from the two-year program could rent one of the apartments and become survivor leaders.
find out more at Sophia’s House