Oklahoma Episcopalians launch Magdalene House OKC, part of nationwide recovery network for women

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 26, 2023
Magdalene House OKC

The Diocese of Oklahoma’s Magdalene House OKC is being renovated to open this summer, welcoming up to eight women upon their release from prison. Photos: Magdalene House OKC, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Oklahoma has launched a residential support program for women released from prison, with the first residents expected to be welcomed to the ministry’s recently bought home this summer.

The ministry, incorporated as Magdalene House OKC, is part of the national Magdalene network founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest based in Nashville, Tennessee, who also is known for starting Thistle Farms more than 20 years ago.

“We’re going to really focus on women coming out of prison, in particular those who have histories of trauma,” the Rev. Tim Baer told Episcopal News Service. Baer, the Oklahoma nonprofit’s board president, also serves as vicar at Grace Episcopal Church in suburban Yukon. Women admitted to Magdalene House OKC will have some combination of incarceration, addiction, sexual exploitation or other trauma in their past, Baer said. The program is for “women who want to do a lot of self work and invest in themselves to kind of create a new start and a new chapter in their lives.”

The project’s origins date to a 2019 presentation by Stevens hosted by St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Oklahoma City. Stevens discussed the Magdalene network, which now includes more than 65 homes nationwide that serve women who have been victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, incarceration and addiction. Stevens created Thistle Farms’ line of candles, oils and other personal care products as a social enterprise to help those women develop workforce skills to assist in their recovery.

Several Episcopalians who attended Stevens’ presentation began discussing Oklahoma City’s need for a Magdalene-style house. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, with more than 550 people behind bars for every 100,000 residents, according to data tracked by The Sentencing Project. Only Mississippi and Louisiana incarcerate a larger percentage of their populations. In Oklahoma, more than 2,000 of those prisoners were women as of 2020, placing it well above most other states.

Female prisoners who are released after incarceration often have few resources to help them transition back into the community, Baer said. After the diocese’s initial efforts to assist those women were slowed by the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the group of Episcopalians behind Magdalene House OKC began gaining momentum in fall 2020 as they visited existing facilities for women to help them develop their own plans and program manual.

The Oklahoma ministry incorporated as a nonprofit in 2021. Backers have included the E.L. and Thelma Gaylord Foundation and other local organizations and individuals. Oklahoma Bishop Poulson Reed chose it as the beneficiary of his annual Bishop’s Appeal that year, helping to raise more than $100,000 in seed money.

“This group of clergy and lay leaders began dreaming of ways to support women coming out of prison, by helping them break cycles of addiction, trauma, sexual exploitation, poverty, and recidivism,” Reed said in his Bishop’s Appeal letter.  “Statistics show that intervening in these women’s lives can dramatically impact their family’s societal trajectory and break the cycle of generational poverty.”

The new nonprofit closed on its purchase of a property in Oklahoma City in December 2022. The Episcopal Church Building Fund financed the loan, and several Episcopal churches made multiyear commitments to the project that will cover the loan payments over the first three years, Baer said.

Magdalene House OKC has raised enough money to fund its first year of programing and has begun recruiting its first full-time executive director. Fundraising is underway to remodel and furnish the home. Through the program, up to eight women will live in the house, each for up to two years rent free.

“It’s really designed to make sure that you’ve had the opportunity to get what you need to be able to survive and function, and we think that’ll take a while,” the Rev. Dana Orwig, a deacon at Grace Episcopal Church and a Magdalene House OKC board member, told the Oklahoman.

The house has five bedrooms and a kitchen that the residents will share. The program will offer the women a range of services, from addiction recovery and trauma-informed care to legal support and financial counseling. It will encourage them to save money by matching the first $2,000 saved. With housing costs covered, the women also should find it easier to pay off prison and court fees.

The ministry will identify appropriate candidates for the residential program with assistance from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and various existing prison ministries in Oklahoma. The first residents are expected to be welcomed in July or August, Baer said. Additional residents will be welcomed gradually, to stagger their time at the house.

The executive director will have an office on site, but the program will not entail an authority figure living in the house with the women. “We want to be empowering women and have more of a peer-led model,” Baer said.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.