St. Stephen’s Community House has focused its service in Linden since 1965, but its story of service began decades earlier, with a singular vision that has sustained throughout its history.
In 1919, Bishop James Hartley and the Catholic Women’s War Relief established the Barthman Avenue Catholic Community Center in a two-story former theater. Located on the South Side of Columbus, the center was designed to help the surging wave of Italian, Hungarian and Yugoslavian immigrant laborers assimilate to their new life in the area known as “Steelton.”
The settlement house helped these fledgling citizens learn the language, understand the culture, acquire citizenship, participate in social activities and, most importantly, support themselves, their new neighbors and their new neighborhood.
“It was a gathering place to meet as a community and build that community,” says Mark Huddy, a St. Stephen’s board member and episcopal moderator for Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Columbus.
The center’s name changed to St. Stephen’s Community House in 1924, but the vision of creating a space where community spirit and individual self-respect could thrive remains the guiding force for the agency today.
“This community has so many assets and so many strengths,” says executive director Marilyn Mehaffie, who began her tenure at St. Stephen’s in 1988 as a youth group worker. “As the community evolves and changes, St. Stephen’s is right there changing and evolving, too.”
Nearly each decade since its founding, the agency’s outreach has shifted. In the 1920s, the facility was expanded to include a gymnasium and showers. In the 1940s, the community house became a place “to support family life fractured by men sent off to war or women to work,” Huddy says. The post-war years saw an increase in supervised play for adolescents and a new focus on migrant workers coming to Columbus from Appalachia.
In the early 1960s, St. Stephen’s Community House moved to Linden, which was greatly underserved by social services. Over time, the organization established itself as a much-needed resource for the neighborhood and became a connection threaded across generations of families.
“Being able to nimbly respond to the changing needs is something St. Stephen’s has always been an example of,” Huddy says. “We’re always trying to serve the needs of the underserved while also being mindful of the partnership we have with the community—letting the community help define the resources they need and how that’s delivered. We try to keep the people we serve always at the forefront.”
When the community said it needed health support, St. Stephen’s opened a neighborhood health center in 1975. When the community needed a place for children to play, it built a new community center with a park, completed in 1983. When the community needed better childcare options, it worked with the city to create a daycare, after-school programs and other educational services throughout the 1990s.
“We want to stay relevant,” Mehaffie says. “We want St. Stephen’s to be open and always transitioning.”
In the 21st century, St. Stephen’s has worked toward earning additional accreditations, increased its food pantry and nutrition center services and continually worked to prepare for whatever challenges the community faces. Each year the agency conducts a community survey to help define what the future looks like for everyone.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve done and will continue doing, so long as the community needs us,” Mehaffie says. “Linden has taught me that family doesn’t always mean parents, brothers, sisters, cousins. Family in Linden means people that love you and care about you.”
And they can be found at St. Stephen’s, she says—yesterday, today and tomorrow.
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Originally published in St. Stephen’s Community House: A Century of Service by GateHouse Media, LLC. Written by Jackie Mantey. Used with permission.