It was spring of 1947. Katie and Bob Rock and their three children were living in an apartment in Clarendon when Catherine de Hueck Doherty spoke at St. Charles Parish on “finding Christ in the poor, the victims of injustice, the most despised and helpless people.” It was an evening that “changed our lives.” Katie had already reached out to other families in the parish, exchanging outgrown clothing, as well offering the occasional helping hand during family emergencies. Her generous spirit found friends eager to reach out to others and open their hearts to other young families.
With three children, the Rocks found themselves in violation of their lease. A friend found them a house in Falls Church, perfect for their needs, and affordable too. So, in 1948 they moved to the corner of Oak Street and Park Avenue, within sight of St. James, where it was easy to hear the kids at recess.
Their family grew to eight children and Katie continued to collect outgrown clothing that she shared with young families in the area. Other women joined her, helping to carry others’ burdens. Housing all those donations, they quickly outgrew the space. Bob decided to put up a pre-fab garage, in order to keep the clothing and occasional furniture out of the attic as well as the weather. Mr. Mahoney of Mahoney Concrete constructed the concrete foundation and apron. According to Katie, the “carpenters” who finished Christopher House, as Katie named the building, were a “pediatrician, a florist, a milk carrier and my lawyer husband, plus a few sidewalk superintendents.” Women of the parish came to organize to the donations as well as launder them. Clothing was sorted by size and gender, stacked and given to whoever needed it. Cribs and strollers were added to the inventory. Few if any notes were kept on donors and recipients. If you needed something and Katie had it, she gave it to you.
Father Paul V. Heller came to St. James in 1953 and took a profound and generous interest in Christopher House, as did succeeding pastors. Local agencies and churches heard of this work and donations came from a variety of sources. Other Christopher Houses, called Little Houses, sprouted as friends with the space opened their hearts and homes. The Visitation monastery in Richmond was an enthusiastic supporter.
Katie herself explained, “Those of us involved in Christopher House and the Little Houses were mothers, with many responsibilities, with no excess means and not much experience in the social sciences. But we were concerned about people who lived in poverty and joylessness, about children deprived of basic needs, and old people living alone and feeling forgotten. What could we do?” The work of Christopher House grew and flourished.
Memories of Christopher House fade but the experience was profound. Katie’s conclusion to her story deserves repeating. She quoted Dominican theologian P. R. Regamy: “Helping the poor sets going among Christians a circulation of life between Christ who helps and refreshes men and Christ who suffers, between Christ who was poor and Christ who was rich but chose poverty because He loved us.”