A little head peeks above couch cushions, tufts of dark hair curling from his head as his eyes glitter and he giggles in that infectious way of babies. The head disappears. Suddenly it’s back, this time atop a short body, peering around the corner of the couch.
“Nick, can you give a high five?” asks his sister Natalie, 20.
Nick toddles over, heaving his one-and-a-half-year-old weight into a high five.
Meanwhile, several boys lounge across another couch, napping or playing games. A young woman works at a computer, answering the phone.
“St. Joseph’s House,” she says.
Some teenagers sort through boxes of books on rows of tables visible through the doorway to the dining room.
This is not the life that John and Donna Kurtz of East Fallowfield, Pennsylvania, had thought possible when they married 25 years ago.
Once Upon a Time…
The story goes like this: A young woman returned to college from summer mission work in Calcutta, India. A young man returned from serving with the Glenmary Home Missioners. The two met and fell in love. They got married and, finding themselves unable to conceive, adopted. Baby Rosa arrived from an orphanage in Mexico. Next came Natalie of Guatemalan and El Salvadoran parents and, after her, David from a foster-care home.
Then there was Maria Elena, age 12, from the same orphanage as Rosa. The first three had been infants. The Kurtzes weren’t sure they should adopt an older child and couldn’t afford another adoption anyway. In prayer, they felt God calling them to accept this new child into their home. Donations appeared and Maria Elena became the fourth Kurtz child.
Donna, who had worked as a teacher in Philadelphia, decided to homeschool the children. As their family grew to 11, John continued working as an independent contractor.
“I was happy to be paying bills but I really wasn’t happy in my soul,” he says.
John realized that he’d been happiest during his time as a volunteer, “when I was helping people with their souls and their hearts.”
After more prayer, he and Donna felt at peace with where they felt led by God. John quit his job and devoted himself to raising their children.
“It was feeling the unction of the Lord and thinking: ‘Oh! This is what you meant,'” John says. “One of the thrills [of my life] is watching what the Lord does and going along with it, watching that unfold as the years have gone on.”
As those years went on and the family continued to grow, they moved from their house in suburban Philadelphia to the basement of a church, to a convent and eventually to where they live now: in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania.
The family swelled to 17 adopted children and three under their guardianship. The Kurtzes accepted some children from foster care, some from orphanages in several countries and some directly from a mother who called the Kurtzes from the hospital.
The Multiplication of the Loaves
Mari Carmen, 24, moves industrial-sized pots around the island in the kitchen ringed with similarly sized pots and pans. She is blanching beans—picked from the garden—to be frozen. They’ll harvest other staples as well: potatoes, corn, cabbage, squash and zucchini.
Outside, chickens peck at grass beneath their movable fence. The fleet of animals includes ducks, turkeys, two dogs and several cats. John, 55, says he hopes to add sheep that will operate primarily as “lawn mowers.” He and Donna, 51, learn what they can about gardening and raising animals so the family can eat fresh food.
“The Lord gave us the land, and everyone is learning something,” John says.
The Kurtzes bought the 7.5-acre property far below value from a woman who had been operating a residence assisting young mothers. She had wanted to sell the property to someone with a similar mission. Within minutes of meeting John and Donna, “she handed us the keys to the property and said, ‘Here, I’ve been waiting for you,'” John says.
“God’s provision is incredible,” Donna asserts. “It’s the multiplication of the loaves.”
From the abundance of that provision, the Kurtzes—who incorporated themselves in December 1999 as St. Joseph’s House, a Pennsylvania 501(c) (3) nonprofit—donate excess clothing and food to their community.
Reading, Writing and Religion
The building in front of the residence, once a stop on the Underground Railroad, opened in 1854 as a boarding school and operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. In 2002, St. Joseph’s House opened St. Philomena Academy, a K-12 independent school. The school operates in consultation with the fully accredited Mother of Divine Grace School in California. In 2008-2009 the school enrolled 120 children.
Interaction with these other families allows the Kurtz children to see what a healthy family looks like, Donna says. “They can see what God intends for children to be born into.”
St. Philomena’s holds classroom instruction two days a week with an optional third day for additional tutoring. The students—”school-homers” as Donna calls them—have homework assignments for the other days.
Parent volunteers, many of whom are certified, staff the school. Both John and Donna teach. Maria Elena, now 28, teaches Spanish and helps with administrative duties.
At home, parents help children with assignments and correct them, John says. “It’s probably more work than throwing a kid in school for five days,” he says. “Compared to my 12 years of education, this is far more focused.”
The curriculum focuses on writing and reasoning, teaching students to be independent thinkers. Religion weighs heavily on the list of required reading. Students read encyclicals and study the writings and biographies of saints.
“The goal is that they will be firm and knowledgeable in their faith and be able to judge personal and social situations, be able to make wise decisions and become contributing members of the community,” Donna says. But “the salvation and sanctification of souls—that’s the bottom line.”
Nick is the most recent addition to the household through a “house of refuge,” which began, again, with the need of one person: a woman from church who sought an escape from an abusive relationship. The woman stayed in a cottage on the property.
“That house has never been empty since,” Donna says.
Now, Nick’s mother, Alicia, lives in that house and shares guardianship with John and Donna.
“Alicia needed to get out of the dysfunctional relationship to be able to make a rational decision about whether to continue her pregnancy,” Donna says.
Offering expectant and new mothers a safe environment and extending partial or temporary guardianship to their children extends from the Kurtzes’ philosophy that pro-life means more than “anti-abortion.”
“It’s different from saying, ‘Just keep the baby,'” Donna says.
She critiques some “pro-life” groups. “Are they just pushing diapers or are they pushing for the future health and well-being for baby and mother?” she asks.
Donna hopes this outreach expands into a “Guardian Angelship” program where women serve as mentors to young mothers.
“Abuse and neglect carry over generations,” Donna says. “How could a child raised in such an environment know how to raise her own children?
“People need to be mentored into living a healthy Christian life, a dialogue where the mom sees the child being cared for correctly,” she says. “We have kids who are being raised by people who have no clue how to be parents.
“Abortion is a serious ill, but also serious is that children are continually being born into abusive and dysfunctional situations,” Donna explains.
She says the greatest need she sees is the plight of children who don’t have a committed family, saying, “I don’t mean biological families.”
Knowing what their children have endured, the Kurtzes have refined their understanding of “family” and “parent.”
“A family is directed toward the well-being of all of its members,” Donna says. “A parent is committed 100 percent to the life of the child.”
Orphans Among Us
Joe, 12, pops into the office.
“Mom, I’m bored,” he says.
“Why don’t you go swimming?” Donna suggests.
“But I’m tired,” he retorts.
“Then go take a nap,” she offers.
“Oh.” He promptly leaves the room.
“That was easy!” Donna says.
“When Joe’s biological mother was pregnant, she had decided to have an abortion,” Donna says, “because it was so difficult dealing with foster care and she wouldn’t have been able to care for the baby herself. But then she changed her mind and called us.”
Joe is back. One of his sisters will be running errands in town. Joe asks John if he can ride along in the car with her. John gently tells him no. Joe asks again, rephrasing his question. John again says no. Joe tries one more time before giving up. Despite the adolescent’s persistence, John does not appear frustrated. Instead, as he watches Joe leave, he grins.
“He’s going to be in sales,” John says affectionately.
Families often experience difficulties accepting foster children because, as much as they want to help, they don’t have an understanding of how to reach their child, Donna says.
“No one wants to take care of a kid because they have developed behavioral reactions to their experience that look hideous to people,” she says.
Foster children get passed from home to home, developing a chain reaction of rejection. This leads to attachment disorders, and if children don’t get what they need in the first three or four years of life, they’ll be affected psychologically and emotionally at the foundational level, Donna says.
The cycle of abuse and neglect creates “an almost insatiable need in these kids for something real,” she says. “It affects who they end up being.”
Despite inadequacies in the government systems, “you can’t slam the agencies,” Donna says. “Child abuse and neglect are a ‘societal illness’ that goes beyond being able to be fixed by any organization.
“It’s part of the Church’s responsibility to see the need and respond in ways that have never been tried before,” Donna says. “People need to know that there are needs that are not getting met. Orphans still do exist in our country and they exist behind many different doors.”
A teenager sleeps upright on the couch, his face bent toward his chest, his brown hair falling forward. A cast wraps halfway up his calf.
“He has a passion for reptiles,” Donna says of 18-year-old Dave. “He’s like a Franciscan in being one with nature.”
Dave loves to wander outside, gathering snakes, turtles and salamanders, storing his catches in aquariums. But today a broken foot keeps him inside. Soon it will heal and he will be collecting reptiles again. It is the emotional and psychological healing for many of the Kurtzes that takes more time. For that, faith plays an intrinsic role in the family.
“We can only do so much, humanly speaking, but we can’t begin to touch the radical nature of psychological wounds,” Donna says.
The Kurtz family begins their day with Mass at a nearby parish. They have individual spiritual reading and reflection and pray together at home. Various Kurtzes occupy seven to eight hours weekly at the parish’s 24-hour adoration.
“Lots of miracles have happened right in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s a time when a lot of healing takes place that doesn’t have to go through all the conventional channels of healing,” Donna says.
“No mother is perfect, and no father is perfect,” John says. They teach their children that their real family, their real home is in the Church.
“We introduce the kids to the Blessed Mother through the dynamic of family prayer, to teach them where they need to go: to the cross, through Mass, through prayer,” he says. “They are sons and daughters of God through adoption. They are embraced in the family of God. We tell our kids they are really blessed by being adopted.”
Eating together three times daily gives the family a chance to talk and to work out disagreements.
“We remind one another that we’re blessed that the Lord put us all here together,” John says. “It’s a daily call on God for patience, mercy, forgiveness, love and acceptance.”
It Takes a Village
The family relies on counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists to help the children work through the effects of abuse and abandonment.
“You watch them desperately wanting to be functional, and it is such a hard road,” Donna says.
The outside support helps point out the gradual changes.
“You have to have people from the outside because sometimes all we know is you have to have dinner on the table and I think most of the socks are picked up,” John says of those who have witnessed the transformation the Kurtz children undergo.
“We need that outside perspective to know that we’re not losing our marbles.”
Sometimes, the transformation is obvious.
“I was one of those kids you see at the mall with the spiky hair and the huge chains for bracelets,” says 19-year-old Ernest Garcia, clad in blue jeans and a collared button-down shirt.
Ernest and his sister Aura, 20, joined the Kurtz family when their parents asked the Kurtzes to become Ernest and Aura’s guardians. Ernest says he harbored anger toward God and his mother. He hated living with the Kurtzes. With persistent, insistent love from John and Donna, Ernest began seeing them as parents.
“I could not help but be emotionally touched by how they saw my ingratitude for all the things they were doing for me and my contempt toward their faith, and still they loved me,” Ernest wrote in a testimonial.
At the end of August 2009, four years after joining the family, Ernest entered St. Charles Seminary in Winwood, Pennsylvania, to explore a potential call to the priesthood.
“Everyone is running after different things in this world, but we’re all looking for love that satisfies,” he says. “Once I found God, I found everything.”
Donna says her greatest joy is watching her children grow and develop their faith.
“We’re not oblivious that we’re trying to prepare them to be good citizens in the world,” she says. “But the primary goal is faith, salvation, which is the best track to be on—no matter what you are doing.”