Providence Place history of service had ‘fascinating’ start, CEO says

Madame Volino’s brothel evolved to help women in need

SAN ANTONIOProvidence Place could very well be the only nonprofit in the city with pieces of antique furniture that were once part of the décor in one of San Antonio’s many brothels more than a century ago.

“Providence Place has a very interesting history for a nonprofit,” said CEO Judith Bell. “We were actually formed out of a brothel.”

Madame Volino’s brothel on San Saba downtown was very much a part of San Antonio’s bawdy history when cowboys, cattlemen and others would come to town to spend their time and money.

That is until Madame Volino had a chance encounter with a Methodist minister at Travis Park Church who was on the streets preaching to whoever would listen.

“It turned her life around,” Bell said.

After her religious awakening, Bell said she dropped “madam” and became simply Mary Volino.

Bell said Volino made it clear to the women who worked for her, “If you don’t want to be a part of that, then you can pack your bags.”

She said many women decided they needed to change their lives as well, and even attended church with Volino.

“I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the women from the brothel walked in to Travis Park Church for the first time,” Bell said.

Eventually, Bell said a separate chapel was built where they could worship.

Bell said Volino began a rescue mission at the former brothel, taking in women off the streets and out of the brothels, where they were taught vocational skills, like sewing and housekeeping.

She said some became housekeepers in what is now the historic King William District.

However, Volino saw another need among the women she was rescuing.

“She did notice that many of them came pregnant or with children in tow,” Bell said.

Not only that, Bell said Volino reported to the United Methodist Conference, “We rescued two pure souls from the streets of San Antonio. One 13 year old, one 9 year old.”

Soon, Bell said Volino would begin placing babies and children up for adoption.

“How can you not be moved by the work? I mean, just think about what a visionary she was,” Bell said.

Unfortunately, Bell said at some point, Volino left Texas and people lost track of her.

Since that rescue mission and those first adoptions, Providence Place, formerly Methodist Mission Home, transitioned in other locations from mostly adoptions to also serving the disabled community for 40 years.

Providence Place remains affiliated with the United Methodist Church and still does some adoptions.

However, now it is helping survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

Bell said Providence Place offers a variety of support services for them and their families on its 25-acre campus and through its caseworker teams in the community.

“We have a staff of wonderfully compassionate, grace-filled and loving people,” Bell said.

She said Mariposa Home, its 18-month residential program, saw its first graduating class of 12 women who are now employed and living independently.

Bell said the mission of Providence Place today reflects what Mary Volino was doing more than a century ago through her rescue mission.

Providence Place is working to end, what Bell said is the “cycle of generational trauma.”

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About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.