Catholic drug rehabilitation facility begins to take shape in Arizona

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A slow but steady effort to bring an explicitly Catholic-focused rehabilitation facility to Arizona is coming together as a small group of activists works to build the program bit by bit.

The Kolbe Mission, based out of Phoenix, is working to realize “a Catholic home to serve those battling addictions,” one that its creators hope will “strengthen the mind, body, and soul through prayer, works, and fellowship.”

Drug addiction has wreaked havoc on U.S. society for decades, with the problem reaching severe crisis levels in recent years. Overdose deaths have also been on the rise. The National Safety Council said that just under 99,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, an all-time high.

CDC data indicate that more than 2,700 individuals in Arizona  died of drug overdoses in that year. The Kolbe Mission, meanwhile, says that Phoenix is “the fifth-largest city in the United States” but that it “lack[s] a Catholic recovery center.”

Kevin Starrs, vice president of the Kolbe Mission and currently the director of prison ministries for the Diocese of Phoenix, told CNA that his work in prisons caused him to notice the absence of rehab facilities built specifically for Catholics.

“Part of what you do is just send people to rehab after they get out of prison,” he said. “And over all the years there were no Catholic recovery homes. We didn’t focus on that, we just kind of noticed that.”

“About five years ago I put together a group of us to pray about it,” Starrs said. “Our retired bishop [Thomas Olmsted] got wind of it and encouraged us to go to Alabama where they had a Catholic facility. All four of us got on a plane and went to it.”

“It was what we envisioned,” he said. “Residents are working the land during the day, doing some recovery classes, going to Mass, going to adoration. So we came back and the bishop asked if we were going to start one here.”

Starrs said the diocese did not want to take direct charge of the project, so the working group launched its own nonprofit, the Kolbe Mission.

“We got our nonprofit status,” Starrs said. “Then COVID hit.” Weathering the disruptions caused by the COVID crisis, the initiative eventually hosted several fundraisers. By that point they were working with the Diocese of Phoenix to develop some land for the project.

“Eventually we were working with Coconino County up there,” Starrs said. The land, however, ended up being unsuitable for the project, so the work shifted toward southern Arizona, where Starrs said more favorable land has been located.

“But our challenge is, we’re all working full time,” he said. “This needs full-time attention.”

Starrs will be retiring in several years, he said. “And after I retire that’s what I’ll do, give the Kolbe Mission my full-time attention.”

The land costs will run as much as $1 million, he said, all of which needs to be raised through fundraising. The project’s website further states that engineering, development, and analysis costs will run another $400,000. The actual construction of the facility will cost about $2 million.

The project leaders said in a recent blog post that they are offering mentorship and assistance to local recovering addicts even while the project is in its infancy. Land acquisition and facility construction is waiting on a “significant financial contribution,” the post said.

“Eventually we’d like to have multiple homes,” Starrs said. “Eventually we’d like to have a women’s home.”

“But getting that first one is a huge key,” he added.

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The initiative is named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

A prisoner escape led Nazi guards to order the systematic starvation of 10 inmates in order to deter future breakouts; Kolbe offered to take the place of inmate Franciszek Gajowniczek after the man cried out for his wife and child.

Gajowniczek survived the war and said later he had dedicated his life to “tell[ing] people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe.” Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982. He is the patron saint of drug addiction and of prisoners.

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