People in New Haven knew “Mother Hicks” as part Mother Teresa, part Norma Rae. In her name and in her spirit, some of the women she inspired will now welcome other women come home from prison and get on their feet.
Those women are opening the Mother Hicks Center, a place to help the two to five female ex-offenders who each week return to New Haven from jail.
The center, scheduled to open in the fall, will occupy donated space in the Greater Apostolic Love and Faith Tabernacle across from the Hospital of St. Raphael on George Street. Dozens of well-wishers crowded into the church Wednesday afternoon to dedicate the center as a place where women leaving the custody of the Department of Correction can get their earthly and spiritual needs fulfilled. The project represents a grassroots, community-based volunteer response to one of New Haven’s greatest social challenge: “prison reentry,” helping returning ex-offenders reintegrate into society rather than get into trouble again.
Organizers are currently writing grant proposals to fund the center, where women will be directed to programs offering housing, food, counseling, literacy, and other services. Volunteers at the center will work closely with the women’s probation and parole officers to make sure they fulfill their obligations.
The project began when social worker Priscilla Taylor and community activist Mae Ola Riddick heard the story of a woman leaving DOC custody who could not access any services, including a bus pass, and wound up walking two miles one snowy day to meet with her probation officer. They decided to get a one-stop shopping center off the ground to connect women like her.
The idea took flight when Pastor Mary Stoudmire of Greater Apostolic Love and Faith Tabernacle offered her worship space free of charge. A group of women joined Taylor and Riddick in planning the center.
They learned that Stoudmire’s grandmother was Mother Louise Hicks (pictured in the framed portrait at the top of the story), a woman legendary in New Haven for helping people with nowhere else to turn. It was a no-brainer, the organizers decided: The new center would be named after her.
If Hicks were still alive today (she died in the 1990s), women like the ex-con without the bus pass might well have ended up on her doorstep.
That was the Mother Teresa part of Hicks’ legacy—providing food, shelter, encouragement and support to anyone who came knocking on her door on Congress Avenue in the Hill.
People would sometimes wake her up at 1 in the morning. She’d take them in, cook for them, help them figure out what steps they would take together to find a place to sleep or how to get the electricity back on.
Her favorite expression was, “We will do something” in answer to every request, said her son, James Hicks, Jr. He’s pictured second from left in the ribbon-cutting photo at the top of the story, over the shoulder of Stoudmire, doing the honors with the scissors. Riddick is front right. Bishop Kenneth Moales, who flew up from Florida to make the official dedication, is at front left.
Another visitor who came from afar was national hotel workers union President John Wilhelm (pictured), who ran up from D.C. He addressed Mother Hicks’s Norma Rae side. She worked in hotels around New Haven and was a leader of Local 217 of HERE (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union), Wilhelm’s union.
In his trademark rally-the-troops, top-of-his-lungs oratory style, he said Hicks could be gentle and kind, but also had a backbone of steel.
“There’s so many people that none of us knows that she touched and helped,” he said. “That was her way. Her way lives on in her family, and it lives on in the Mother Hicks Center.”
Her son James said she had three children, 24 grandchildren, and more than 30 great grandchildren. A half-dozen young great-greats (including Zoe Powell, in ribbon-cutting photo) were at the celebration.
All the speakers kept their comments brief, at the jocular urging of emcee Bill Dyson (pictured). He marveled that even State Rep. Pat Dillon kept her comments short, saying it was historic.
During his decades in the state legislature, and more recently as co-chair of the Prison Re-entry Roundtable, Dyson has been committed to the issue of criminal justice reform.
“It’s a kind of welcoming them home,” he said of the center. “And this is the first example of that, in which the community got together—people who were just interested and knew what the needs were—to be about the business of doing what it took to make it happen.”
Essie James (pictured) was on hand to help serve lunch following the program. James spent five years in the correctional system after going to prison on an assault charge. When she got out she was homeless and had nowhere to turn.
“You need a place like this,” she said. “If you don’t have a place like this, [women] are just going to go and get in the same situation that got them incarcerated in the beginning.”
Asked what services she’d like to see at the center, she responded immediately, “That females just coming out, that they can be reunited with their kids.” She herself was not allowed to live with her children for several years after serving six months at the Niantic women’s prison and a year at two different halfway houses.