The Bridge

This episode is the first part of the journey of Sr Rita Steinhagen, CSJ. In this episode, we follow Sr Rita and her efforts to found The Bridge, an assistance program for homeless youths.

Pa Ying:
“When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down”
-Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel

On December 2016, the Code of Ordinances was amended by the Minneapolis City Council to allow the opening of intentional communities, wherein unrelated adults can live together. These adults are given the opportunity to function as a unit, by sharing household expenses and creating a set of rules that all individuals can abide by.

Sr Rita Steinhagen was born on January 21, 1928 in Waconia, Minnesota. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her high school years and was a patient at the Minnesota State Sanatorium for Tuberculosis. After being discharged from the sanatorium, she took a course on medical technology and upon her graduation, she began working as a medical technologist at the sanatorium; it was here that she met acquaintances with connections to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. At 23 years old, Sr Rita joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and continued working as a medical technologist. Ten years later, Sr Rita was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to resign from her job as a medical technologist.

After her journey as a medical technologist, Sr Rita moved on to work at the Free Store in Minneapolis. In her book, Hooked by the Spirit, Sr Rita writes, “...I learned that the health officials and police had closed the store because it had not been consistently staffed and had turned into a warming house for winos, drug addicts, and runaways.” Sr Rita was now tasked with the need to convince the landlords, ministers, social workers, and other community leaders to reopen the Free Store. And after much trouble, Sr Rita was given the keys to reopen the Free Store on March 17th, 1969.

“An amazing amount of people had entered my life since I had come to West Bank. Some I saw only once or twice, but others who lived in the area became regulars at the store. Elderly people from the high-rise were frequent visitors as were numerous hippies. Some runaways also came in often, particularly those who lived on the roof of a department store on Cedar Avenue.”

Dr. Judy Bergfalk, newly graduated medical student, contacted Sr Rita to ask about working in West Bank.

Kip, asked for prayers that his marriage will work out.

John, a hippie, whose house was open to runaways asked for a statue of an angel.

Dr. Grace Carlson, a professor at St. Mary’s Junior College and a former member of the Communist Party, had great conversations about life with Sr. Rita.

Cindy, a 14-year old runaway who Sr. Rita opened her home for.

And an unnamed individual who had runway from home and eventually asked Sr Rita if she could provide a place for the runaways to stay.

On June 1970, the same landlords who owned the Free Store allowed Sr. Rita to use a house that they had on 20th Avenue South as a place to house runaways. During this time, the Minneapolis Community Health and Welfare Council formed the Runaway Assistance Program (RAP) to address the homelessness problem in the city. The report that was released by the RAP highlighted Sr. Rita’s effort to license a house to shelter the runaways. As a result of this, Sr Rita went to several meetings with social workers, law enforcement, fire and building inspectors in order to obtain a license. However, the journey to obtaining a license was long and they had to turn away several requests for shelter because no official statement had been made about the legality of the shelter.

One her many meetings with the RAP, Father Jerome Boxleitner suggested that the shelter be part of Catholic Charities so that funding can be less stressful and more credibility can be given to the shelter. With that in mind, Sr. Rita allowed the shelter to fall under Catholic Charities and with their support movement for the legality of the shelter progressed.

Needing to get away from the stress for a while, Sr Rita went to Timberlee, where her community had a lake place. It was here that Sr Rita found the perfect name for her shelter. One of the sister was singing “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and inspired by the song, she decided to name the shelter The Bridge.

“The committee and I had difference of opinion about who the clientele of The Bridge should be. The committee said that funding might not be available if only girls were accepted. I said, ‘Just girls to start with. Let’s live there a few weeks to see where the bedrooms and bathrooms are and if the showers and toilet works.’

I thought the hassle of moving into a new place with young girls who had problems would be enough of a challenge without the “boy” factor. Boys could be accepted later when we figured out what we were doing.”

After waiting for several months, the Bridge was finally given a temporary one month license in February before being properly licensed as a group home on March 8th, 1971. By March, they had already housed 186 kids. Though licensed and under Catholic Charities, The Bridge still had difficulties with funding and were behind on rent. But with the help of their lawyer, Dave Stanley and his legal group the Enablers, The Bridge was able to obtain a monthly check of $200 to help with the rent.

Along with the financial difficulties, the Board of Directors of The Bridge was debating the possibility of breaking away from Catholic Charities and being an independent organization. Through much discussion, the decision was made to remove it’s dependency on Catholic Charities, making The Bridge an independent organization that was still struggling to find a stable source of funding.

According to The Bridge’s official site, “On February 3, 1972, The Bridge became a privately incorporated nonprofit, with funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission. The Bridge was the first runaway shelter in the nation to receive federal funding.

The Bridge quickly emerged as a national leader in the field of homeless youth. In 1972, Sister Marlene Barghini (our first Executive Director) testified in front of the U.S. Subcommittee on Children & Youth regarding the importance of crisis hotlines – a system that continues to be integral to The Bridge, updated for the modern world with the addition of a text hotline.

In 1997, the Bridge opened a transitional living program, which helps youth learn life skills and transition out of homelessness. Originally, this program served up to 8 young people for a maximum of 90 days each. Today, Transitions has 10 beds and youth can stay for up to 18 months.”

Along with their transitional living program, The Bridge also recently opened Rita’s House. As per Minneapolis’ new amendment to their Code of Ordinances, individuals can live in Rita’s House and work as a unit to manage the house. Along with this opportunity, they also get to work towards their own goal and obtain a rental history while working with “a case manager and an Independent Living Skills specialist, who will help them work towards independent adulthood.”

“I find it hard to put into words the depth of my feelings for the world that I had suddenly and unexpectedly become part of five years before. I became very comfortable with this world because of the acceptance and love I received from the street people.

But my spirit was telling me it was time to move on. I needed more quiet and prayer time. The inner voice that sets my time schedule is like a pull or call that sends the salmon upstream in the spring and the robins south in the fall…”

Sr Rita’s journey will continue in the next episode.

Additional Information:
The Bridge for Youth:
Rita’s House:

About Curve Riders

Curve Riders is a short narrative podcast of women who didn't make the history books. Produced by Pa Ying Vang; the series presents achievements and cultural impacts of women religious. Inspired by SisterStory's coverage "Sisters of Influence" on pinterest the podcast aims to present these stories anew with an emphasis on storytelling through writing, sound design, and music. The podcast was created by Alexa Harnagel who produced it in 2015 with subsequent production also handled by EJ La Valle and Maakwe Cumanzala.