PHOTO BY DANIEL HORAN, O.F.M.
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
"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
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
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
"I was happy to be paying bills but I
really wasn't happy in my soul," he
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
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.
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
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,'"
"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.
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
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
"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
Donna hopes this outreach expands
into a "Guardian Angelship" program
where women serve as mentors to
"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
"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."
Joe, 12, pops into the office.
"Mom, I'm bored," he says.
"Why don't you go swimming?"
"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's going to be in sales," John says
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
"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."
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
"We need that outside perspective
to know that we're not losing our marbles."
Sometimes, the transformation is
"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
"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."
For more information about the
Kurtz family or St. Joseph's House, go
to www.sjhouse.org. John and Donna
can also be reached by e-mail at
firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 610-486-1060.