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House Hunting, Catholic Style

alec vanderboom

Three years ago, we moved into a two bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. We were far from the "hip" art scene in NYC. We didn't rent the downtown city loft apartment of our dreams. Instead, our suburban sprawl neighborhood in dowdy Maryland boasted of hay fields, horse farms and sleek Lockheed Martin office buildings. Yet our new place was safe, and clean. After moves across 4 states in three years with 2 tiny babies in tow, we were thankful to finally have steady work for a young Dad & a "in-house" washer/dryer for Mama.

Over time, we gave birth to another little one. We named her "Maria." We saw the wisdom of God bringing us to "Mary's Land." We found a warm, dynamic parish filled with Latino, African, and Indian immigrants. We taught ourselves how to sign hymns in Spanish & French, and relished the common language of the Pater Noster. We drank in original El Greco's in the National Gallery. We had started regular confessions and trips to Daily Mass. Oh, we also happened to attend a Papal Mass at our humble baseball stadium!

As we fell more in love with our spiritual home in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., we still hungered for a permanent nest for our domestic church. We buried a statute of St. Joseph next to our patio two years ago. As it buried the statute, Jon secretly prayed for us to find a house of our own. We said lots of prayers as a family, especially whenever rent increase time came. Then we forgot about it. Last summer, Saint Joseph poked his head out of the ground. "I guess he wants to come out now," Jon said and took into work to place on his cubicle desk. (We'd signed our lease for another 18 month extension, so the house thing seemed already settled).

In late October my husband came home from work and announced, "I think we should apply for a mortgage." Internally, I dismissed his idea as ridiculous. The Washington Post carried more dire warnings about the credit crunch each day. People with 720 credit scores were denied mortgages. Our little blemished, heavily indebted with student loan credit score didn't have a chance.

At the same time that I was completely, completely certain that this mortgage application was a complete waste of time, a little voice reminded me that I'd prayed hard at my recent Women of Prayer retreat to "have a more Marian heart." I couldn't imagine Our Blessed Mother saying to St. Joseph "Your a fool if you think we have a chance at a home loan." So with the consoling thought "this isn't going anywhere anyways, so what is the harm", I managed to squeak out a wifely "Sure sweetie, if you think it's that important."

On Saturday, I dug out my husband's ancient Reserve Discharge Papers. I tracked down the paper form of our ING savings account. I tried not to blanch when the mortgage fax at Kinko's came to $11. All the while I secretly practiced my 'oh, don't feel bad about getting denied. The whole country is being denied credit right now" speech.

So it came as a shock on Monday morning when my husband called me with the news that we were pre-approved for a mortgage! Not just any mortgage, but a VA loan, with a 100% financing, PMI coverage, a low interest rate. It's like shopping for a house, old school.

For the next two weeks, I felt panic. Buying a house is a big deal. I didn't think that we "deserved" it. (We had baby after baby instead of following my friend's path of diligently paying off law school debt while working at boring firm jobs.) I wasn't sure we could afford it. I wasn't sure about anything.

For two weeks, we blindly looked a real estate listing on the internet at night. The amount of listings in the five mile radius of our apartment are staggering. There are 2 bedroom condos in bad neighborhoods. There are expensive 3 & 4 bedroom townhouses. There are run down 4 bedroom townhouses in bad neighborhoods.

We had no idea what to do. Did we move further out of the city, with our single car in hopes of finding a decent priced house? Did we commit to living near Jon's work (so that he can still bike) and pay outrageous sums on a condo unit? What was going to happen to going to daily Mass together as a family?

I drove myself crazy with all the what-ifs and what do we do now? It didn't help that Jon and I were instinctively on different pages. I'm a natural optimist. I thought we should look at nice townhouses $50,000 more than our price range and plan on hard ball negotiation tactics to make the final sale. Jon, rather wisely insisted, that we consider our monthly property expenses as leaving enough space for food.

After starting out the research project full of vigor that we "were finally in the game", we ended up feeling exhausted, uncertain, and depressed.

One Saturday Mass, I had this feeling of peace and direction after Communion. To have a "Marian heart" as a wife, meant that you "let" St. Joseph provide you a house. As a wife, you don't bargain, you don't set pre-conditions, don't complain that you didn't deserve shelter, and mostly you don't fear.

I had this mental image of Our Lady, patiently waiting on the donkey, with her cold fingers and contracting belly, full of faith as St. Joseph knocked on inn keeper after inn keeper's door to find her shelter.

After Mass, I walked up to the Saint Joseph statute in our sanctuary and gave him my heart. "If you will lead my husband on this search for our home, I will accept whatever home you find. I will "let" you provide us with a house."

It was beautiful and solved everything for me. I didn't have to be shrewed in our real estate purchase. I didn't have give my husband the "right" advice, or insure we made a great deal. I just had to trust that St. Joseph had his hand on my husband, and was the one leading the way.

Immediately outside of church, before I could even explain my moist eyes to my husband, we ran into a dear couple who attend our parish. The wife is a lay Carmelite with us. Her husband attends Jon's Men of Emmaus Group. We stopped to say hello and the guys immediately start comparing notes on everything from the Catechism to local gas prices Meanwhile Mary & I shivered in the cold. My kids ran around without their jackets, the baby refused to keep on her hat. After the fifth gentle reminder, "Honey we should let the Benjamin's go," my friend Mary finally said "Well, I don't know about your guys, but I'm freezing. I'll wait for you in the car." She put her hands into her coat pocket to pull out her car keys and instead happened on a holy card.

"Oh, I should give this to you."

"It's been blessed," she assured me as she saw a stunned reaction on my face.

In my red, chapped hands lay a picture of St. Joseph, Protector of Homes. On the back was this prayer.

"St. Joseph, protect our home. Pour forth heaven's blessing on our family. Remain in our midst. help us to live in love and harmony, in peace and joy. May the wholesome fear of God strengthen us that virtue may adore what we do and our way may lead to heaven.

To you this day, I give the key to our dwelling place. Lock out all things which could do us harm. Lock my home and my loved ones with me in the hearts of Jesus and Mary. This I beg of you that our days may be like your days in the holy home at Nazareth."

I could not talk. I just nodded at her. I couldn't say anything until later in the car with my husband when I burst with happiness.

That day we found a cute, cottage near our parish church. The place is humble, 800 square feet with only 5 rooms in total, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom & 2 bedrooms. Outside is a huge fenced in backyard. The house is located next to the priests' house, and the site of our new parish convent.

My heart got deflated when I looked into the 11 by 11 foot kitchen. It's an empty shell, with every appliance ripped out. "We'll be able to design a new IKEA kitchen from scratch," my husband said happily.

"This must be the wrong house," I thought. "This can't be from St. Joseph. We can't fit in here with 3 kids."

As I prayed, I looked around the lovely yard. There were three roses in bloom in the backyard. (In mid NOVEMBER!). "Well, that's from Little Saint Theresa" I shrugged. "This is it."

I went home and tried to get my head around the sacrifice of living in a small space. Instead of moving "up" with a new playroom/school room & a garage, we'll actually be losing an extra bathroom & four closets. My kids might have the smallest house on the block. How would that make them feel?

That night as I prayed the rosary, Jesus himself reminded me of what is important. "Your kids have the chance to grow up next door to priests and nuns. They will go to Mass with me everyday! How can that compare to an extra romp room or more space for art supplies?"

I had a picture of our new house as a natural extension of our parish church. I saw my favorite priest stopping by for a quiet cup of coffee and a chat about his seminary experience with Rome while my kids ran around pretending to be airplanes in the yard.

When I ended the rosary, I found out that my husband had the same vision of "St. Joseph's house" as being a blessing to our busy, overworked parish priests.

On Thursday, we had our first walk-through with a new real estate agent. After all the happy bankers we talked to, it was abrupt to have a negative buyer's agent. "This place is to much work. REO's are a pain to deal with. We'll find you another house nearby."

I absorbed this statement while holding a tape measurer in my hand.

"Your standing in my living room!" I wanted to say. "This is our house! Whatever negative response you fear from the seller, it's not going happen. St. Joseph gave us this house. He's on the case!"

I didn't know how to translate all of this into secular speak, so I just went outside and joined my husband in the rain.

This morning, we got an email from the seller's agent. They are eager to sell.

So please pray for us. We hit a snag with our VA loan and will need extra approval before placing an offer on this property. Please pray that the buying process goes smoothly and quickly. Pray that we get an affordable price. Please pray also for my sanity as I attempt to juggle a move, my first home-school review & Christmas all at the same time!

Meanwhile, many, many thanks to St. Joseph, who provides our families with all of our necessities. Blessed be St. Jospeh's holy name, forever!