Skip to content

Warming shelter at Wisconsin parish builds bonds of trust, community

On Tuesday mornings, Laurie Pollack leads a group of men and women in a Bible study. Together they pray through a Scripture passage, offer their personal reflections, and share where God is working in their lives.

The Day by Day Shelter first opened at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. Courtesy photo.


In many ways, the Bible study may seem unremarkable – a mirror of countless similar groups across the country.

But there is one striking difference. Apart from Pollack and two other parishioners from her Oshkosh, Wisconsin parish, the attendees are homeless.

Pollack is the coordinator of pastoral outreach at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, which has a particular connection to the local homeless population. When a group of concerned residents decided to open a seasonal warming shelter, the parish lent its retired school building to the cause.

In 2021, it was estimated that there were about 200 homeless individuals in Oshkosh, where temperatures frequently drop below freezing in the winter.

The Day by Day Shelter opened its doors at Most Blessed Sacrament on October 15, 2011, offering guests dinner and a warm place to sleep through Wisconsin’s coldest months.

The school building was supposed to be a temporary solution for the shelter, which would reopen every October through April. But Day by Day’s board of directors encountered community opposition in securing a new location.

“What was supposed to be a six-month space turned into 12 years,” Molly Yatso Butz, executive director of Day by Day since 2020 and previously a board member, told The Pillar.

And what began as lending a building turned into a long-term relationship between parishioners and guests of Day by Day.

Today, in addition to the weekly prayer group, Pollack and the Day by Day staff host a yearly memorial service for homeless guests and friends of guests who have died over the years.

And while Pollack and two other parishioners are the most heavily involved with the shelter, the broader parish community has taken to the Day by Day guests as well.

One group of parishioners cooks dinner for the shelter once a month. Other parishioners donate money for groceries. And during Advent, the most popular “Giving Tree” tags — paper ornaments requesting items for local charities — are the ones for Day by Day, said Pollack.

Day by Day is “something that our community has really wrapped its arms around,” she said.

Some of the guests have become participants in the parish community as well. One began attending daily Mass at Most Blessed Sacrament, even donating to the offertory collection.

“He didn’t have a lot of money, but some days he would give us 20 cents or $1 or $5,” said Pollack. “Finally he said, ‘Can I get some church envelopes? I want them to know that I belong here.’”

Before the first memorial service for homeless guests was held in 2021, Pollack — wanting to be sensitive to the variety of faith backgrounds of the guests — asked people at the shelter and Day by Day staff if it would be ok for their pastor to preside at the ecumenical service.

“They were like, ‘Are you kidding me? That would be awesome. He’s our priest. This is our church,’” Pollack told The Pillar.

“So they actually look at Most Blessed Sacrament as their church.”

In May 2023, Day by Day moved to a new, larger facility down the road from Most Blessed Sacrament. It now accommodates 50 guests per night — up from 25 at the school building — and is open year-round. The shelter also offers additional services during the daytime hours.

In spite of the move, the relationship between the communities continues. After a hiatus during the transition, Pollack resumed the prayer group in September, and she plans to host the next memorial service in March 2024.

She wants to ensure that the guests of the shelter continue to feel welcome as part of the parish community.

She recalled one guest and prayer group attendee, Tracy, who told her, “The church was not just our neighbor. They were our church.”

Leave a comment

Building trust

Initially Day by Day and Most Blessed Sacrament shared little more than a building, with Pollack and the parish staff only running into guests by mistake.

“People would come to our door and we’d say, ‘Oh, wrong door,’” remembered Pollack, whose office was also in the school building.

There was also some hesitance on the part of parishioners to welcome the shelter to their parish grounds. Pollack noted that the staff hosted townhall meetings for parishioners to ask questions.

“Not knowing what to expect, I think some people were afraid of them or a bit stand-offish upon first meeting them,” explained Pollack. “Over time, our parishioners became more accustomed to having them on our campus and engaging with them.”

Still, it wasn’t until several years after Day by Day’s arrival that Pollack and a couple other parishioners began reaching out to the guests to form a prayer group.

It did not go as they expected. 

“When we first went over to the warming shelter, we were thinking, ‘Yeah, we're gonna just go over and pray with them,’” she said. “And when we got there, we realized that they didn’t know us, and they didn’t want us to pray with them because that’s a really personal thing, and so we had to really take a step back and start by building relationships with them.”

Trust came over time, said Pollack.

“We shared a lot of our own personal stories, and they shared a lot of their own personal stories, and then as time went on, we added in some prayer,” said Pollack.

Like their prayer, the memorial service arose organically from the relationships among the guests, the staff and the church. Following the death of a guest, Pollack and the shelter staff decided to hold a service for all deceased guests and friends of guests of the previous several years.

The day before it was scheduled to be held, another guest died — a fact that many of the attendees learned only upon arrival at the service. It made for an emotional evening, said Pollack.

“One guy just stood up and he spoke about the gentleman who had passed away, and all of a sudden, one by one, the guests were coming up and they were all embracing each other and sharing and talking,” said Pollack. “It was very unplanned and very beautiful.”

Bill, a guest of the shelter, told Pollack that he “just remember[s] hugging and crying” that night.

Pollack read the readings at the ecumenical service. Yatso Butz, herself a parishioner of another local Catholic parish, sang hymns. And Fr. Jerry Pastors, Most Blessed Sacrament’s pastor since 2017, presided.

“It was just really nice for them to all see familiar faces, too,” said Yatso Butz. “It was just all people that support them and understand them and grieve with them.”

Share The Pillar

‘Like brothers and sisters’

Pollack has learned a lot from the experience of working with people at the warming shelter.

She said she is regularly inspired both by the faith and generosity of many of Day by Day’s guests.

She recounted a story of seeing one woman wearing a blanket because her clothes had gotten soaked through by a thunderstorm. Pollack took her to Walmart to get her some new, dry clothes.

A few days later, Pollack saw her again.

“She said to me, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I gave the clothes that you gave to me to someone else who needed them more,’” she remembered.

Pollack cautions others who are interested in working with the homeless that they should not try to evangelize without building real relationships.

“Just that initial idea of going in there and like, ‘Oh, we’re going to help these people. We’re going to help them discover Jesus, and their lives are going to change’ — that’s not how it works,” she said.

As for safety concerns, pastor Fr. Jerry Pastors told The Pillar that he and the parish staff familiarized themselves with Day by Day’s safety protocol, as well as established a relationship with the nearby police department. He declined to name any specific incidents, saying that problems that arose were mostly internal to the shelter rather than affecting the parish.

“We felt very safe,” Fr. Pastors told The Pillar.

To those who may be nervous about meeting homeless men and women, Pollack emphasized the importance of treating them like any other person.

“We’re all called to be the face of Jesus,” she said. “We are all called to treat our brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters.”

And, she added, “God takes care of the rest.”

Subscribe now

This article is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.

Comments 4