May 14, 1995 in Features

Sister Zoe Continues To Reach Out, Finding New Ways To Use Her Mothering Instincts

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Sister Zoe Nasset has an idea. But before reacting to it, keep a couple of things in mind.

She’s got a temper. At least she says she does. “I’ve certainly got a bad disposition,” is how she puts it. Smiling.

And she does not like being called a kook.

So, OK, here’s the deal. She wants to provide affordable housing for the needy and homeless. And she plans to start by building modest retirement lodges that would generate funds for her project through rent.

Nasset, 73, calls her undertaking Oasis Christian Communities. She has a business plan, 10 acres outside Spokane and a special-rate commitment from a modular home dealer.

Now, by her reckoning, all she needs is a quarter of a million dollars.

But wait. Don’t run away. She’ll take it a dollar at a time.

Nasset’s fund-raising vision involves lots of Spokane area residents making small contributions. For instance, she dreams of area college students making a crusade of gathering donations. Or, as she became fond of saying during interviews, a buck or two from everyone who reads the Sunday edition of The Spokesman-Review would put her in business.

Who is Zoe (pronounced like Joe) Nasset?

Well, she’s not exactly what she seems.

Oh, she’s on the level and all that. The Rev. Armand Nigro, a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University who first encountered Nasset 30 years ago, vouches for her.

“I wish I could go to sleep each night knowing that I have helped as many poor and homeless people as she has,” he said.

But more than a few strangers see Nasset’s black habit and assume she has lived some stereotypical version of a nun’s life.

The truth is, she’s not actually a nun, though calling her “sister” is correct. She is what is known in Catholic circles as a widow who has taken private vows. Her special commitment to the church was sanctioned years ago by a bishop in Oregon.

Nasset’s machinist husband died when she was 41, leaving her with nine children at home (the youngest not yet 2).

She doesn’t have a degree or a fancy business card. But she knows about taking care of people.

“Mothering is a natural instinct for me,” she said.

For decades, she has devoted herself to helping people find a roof to get under. Often she makes room where she herself is living. “Wherever we go, we seem to collect people who need places to live,” she said.

Some who have turned to her, former convicts and discharged mental patients among them, have not been people society typically embraces with warm, fuzzy feelings.

Her motivation is simple. “It’s just a matter of putting yourself in the other person’s place,” said Nasset, who moved to Spokane three years ago to join one of her sons. “It’s what the Bible teaches. And it is one way I’ve experienced God’s presence.”

She’s ready for the tough Judgment Day questions, she said, adding, “I don’t know what some people are going to say.”

She has become a familiar sight to those attending daily morning Mass at St. Aloysius Church.

Regardless of the prospects that her housing plan will become reality, the way Nasset lives her life is an inspiration, said Nigro.

But the daughter of reservationbased teachers doesn’t want to be viewed as some sweet old lady who’s well-intentioned but naive.

“I have an idea and I want to see it happen,” she said. “I wouldn’t try to run the whole thing. I just want to get it started.”

She receives no income from the church.

Sometimes she doesn’t even receive courtesy, let alone respect. “She’s been bruised,” said Nigro.

Certain priests and others have expressed doubts that she is the right person for the job she has assigned herself.

“There are several reasons,” she said. “I guess some people think ‘Who is she, she doesn’t have any money and she’s got this big vision.’ Plus the fact that I’m older has something to do with how I’m viewed. But mostly it’s just that this isn’t what the ordinary person is doing.”

Still, Nasset isn’t content to leave the task of tackling homelessness to a bureaucracy or someone with more Main Street credentials.

She has faith in her idea.

And it’s a measure of her lack of cynicism that she sincerely believes the small-donations route could work. She does not assume people are apathetic.

“Everybody almost, even some of the people on the street, can give a dollar,” said Nasset. “And most of us know 10 other people we could ask.”

Failing that, she’d settle for someone with deep pockets stepping up to co-sign a loan.

But if you can’t help her, don’t pat her on the head and mouth pieties. Just get out of her way.

“Some people give me this attitude like ‘Oh, that’s a nice idea, dearie, but if it’s God’s will it’ll happen,”’ she said. “And I think, no, we have to MAKE it happen.”

MEMO: For more information about Oasis Christian Communities, call 324-8126.

For more information about Oasis Christian Communities, call 324-8126.


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