In Billings, Montana, just outside the expansive Crow Indian Reservation, sits a small white frame house on a busy street. Over 1,500 women a year walk through the door of this modest place, where they find the warm welcome and steady guidance of Sister Mary Dostal, an Ursuline nun and former Lumen Christi finalist, operating “Angela’s Piazza,” a Catholic Extension-supported drop-in center.
Angela’s Piazza is designed to meet the immediate needs of women by providing food and clothing. Through its many empowerment and companionship programs, including parenting classes and addiction recovery groups, it also provides support for vulnerable women seeking to forge a hopeful future.
A life changed forever
Melissa was 18 when she met Sister Dostal. She and her mom, who was in addiction recovery, wanted to attend a women’s empowerment conference. Sister Dostal paid their way.
Inspired by what she learned at the conference, Melissa returned to Angela’s Piazza. With whole-hearted support from Sister Dostal, they established “Daughters of Tradition,” a program that helps Native American girls, ages 8–13, create healthy identities for themselves.
“Melissa did not have a lot of parental structure growing up and she struggled,” explained Sister Dostal. “She wanted to help other young girls avoid similar difficulties.”
Melissa was very dedicated to the success of the program and savored every moment. She wanted to do more with young people, but she needed higher education to do so. She felt she would be forever stuck in her job at a fast-food restaurant. Then Sister Dostal suggested college.
“She was reluctant at first,” said Sister Dostal. “She had tried a semester after high school but got pregnant and dropped out. Reflecting on it now, all she really needed was someone to believe in her and help her to overcome obstacles along the way.”
It took nearly seven years for her to finish school, with Sister Dostal tutoring, babysitting and ensuring access to computer resources. Today Melissa teaches first graders at a local Catholic school.
“God created us to be in community,” said Sister Dostal. “He wants us to be a support to one another.”
An immense land of limited opportunity
The Diocese of Great-Falls Billings covers an astounding 94,000+ square miles, a land mass larger than the entire United Kingdom. Sister Mary Dostal is one of only 38 religious sisters to serve this diocese, which is home to five tribal nations.
The largest of the diocese’s tribal lands, the Crow Indian Reservation, spans 2.2 million acres, with its northwestern border only 10 miles from the city of Billings, where some go to live or pursue job opportunities. In their search for opportunity, they often encounter poverty, compounded by loss of community and cultural identity. Women can find themselves trapped in abusive relationships.
Angela’s Piazza offers education and supportive care for abuse survivors, providing a place where others will understand their situation. “They share what works for them and what doesn’t,” said Sister Dostal.
Together they see possibilities. Having their feelings and ideas validated helps them grow and become empowered.”
Sister Dostal understands that these women’s stories begin years before they come to her—in the past she has met many children with their mothers, only to see them struggle through similar issues as they grow up.
“These kids are just so full of life,” said Sister Dostal. She prays often for their protection. But she also puts her prayer into action.
“I feel a real sense of duty to help bring out all that wonderful God-given potential.”
Helping women support each other
Angela’s Piazza operates on a shoestring budget, so they rely on the generosity of others.
In August, Sister Dostal received a grant from the Sisters on the Frontlines initiative, a program that aims to give 1,000 Catholic sisters $1,000 each to help those most impacted by the adverse effects of COVID-19. Additional support this past year has come through Catholic Extension’s Catholic Kinship initiative designed to help the poorest Catholic communities in the wake of the pandemic.
With the funding, Sister Dostal helped a mother, Raniza, and her family of six after she lost her job due to the pandemic. Monies helped pay for food, rent and a large portion of Raniza’s laptop purchase so that she could study for a new certification.
Another woman helped by the center is Isabella. For her, Angela’s Piazza has been life-changing.
“I am surrounded by women with similar wounds,” she said. “In the groups, we heal together. This community of women shares ways of giving back to ourselves, healing our souls. We learn how to be comfortable in our own skin.”
When Sister Dostal helps one woman embrace their God-given dignity and talents, she believes they can empower others to do the same. The steady love that Sister Dostal shares at Angela’s Piazza has transformational power. It ripples through countless challenging lives, creating the potential for healing and recovery.
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