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Lantern Center a Welcoming Light in Mission

Originally published in Catholic San Francisco and written by Liz Dossa

Gathered around a table at the Lantern Hospitality Center in San Francisco's Mission District, five women listen intently to each other. They select their words carefully to describe their lives in English.

"I worked nights from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. at a hotel where I was treated so badly," said Eugenia. "I was so stressed, sad and angry. Then one day I told Sister Rosann, 'I need help. Pray for me. I need opportunity."'

Adult students full of hope lean into their futures here. They juggle work schedules, children and rides to come to a place of welcome. In celebrating their 150th anniversary in San Francisco, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary wanted to mark their presence through a new ministry to the city's marginalized. Sister Maire Sullivan found the site, a former Dominican convent, in 2006, and the Presentation Sisters gave a ministry subsidy to open the center. It was christened the Lantern, as the Presentation sisters' founder Nano Nagle was known as the Lady with the Lantern, holding up her lamp to see her way through the dark streets of Cork, Ireland, visiting the poor.

The blue plastic sign at the Lantern Center's entrance proclaims in large block letters, "ALL ARE WELCOME BIENVENIDOS ." In smaller letters, "English, computer and citizenship classes." The classes are free.

"We put the word hospitality first," Sister Maire said. "It's a place where people can come and are welcome. Because when they feel at home they can learn English better."

"Hospitality is part of our charism," says Presentation president Sister Stephanie Still. "Our founder Nano met people wherever they were with hospitality that was an openness of spirit and heart. We invite people in as they are. We give service, but we learn a lot from people we serve."

The center feels as open as a palm of a hand. The large, light main room is lined with shelves with student files, workbooks, and notebooks. Upstairs is a computer classroom where a computer teacher, Norma, the only paid staff person, teaches the computer basics. The budget is slim, and the main expense is the rent paid to the parish. "We are frugal," admits Sister Maire.

At one of the rectangular tables, Mercy Sister Rosann Fraher leads her group with a gentle authority. As the women, all immigrants from Mexico and Central America, talk about their lives, she gives praise and encouragement, doling out paper dollars in response to a good question and the courage to ask it. Who? What? Where?

Her student Flor from Nicaragua at 74 is delighted to finally focus on learning English after raising eight children as a single mom in San Francisco. Teaching those who want so much to learn English was Sister Rosann's longtime dream. After years in teaching at St. Peter School, at St. Anne and as principal at Mercy High School, Burlinganm, she was delighted to find that Sister Maire had founded the Lantern. She signed on as a volunteer and became a member of the board.

Eugenia finishes her story. Both her hard work learning English and the prayers have been fruitful. "One week after I asked Sister Rosann for help, my dream came true. An opening for a bus person at the hotel restaurant came. I said to the manager, 'Please let me try for one week. Please give me the opportunity. Watch me.' I tried to speak a little more English."

She pauses, smiling: "I got the job!"

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