WASHINGTON TWP. The Rev. John Stabeno calls his Monday-night meetings a sobering dose of "reality."
In the basement of St. Charles Borromeo, dozens of drug addicts and alcoholics and their family members meet weekly to vent, cry, laugh, and smile.
Stabeno, a 14-year priest in the Diocese of Camden, says he tries to keep it real himself - right down to his attire. At a recent meeting, he wore loose jeans and a T-shirt as about 60 people gathered in a circle.
"He's not just a priest," said Rich Bilo, 26, of Deptford, who on this warm spring night had reached 38 days without alcohol with Stabeno's assistance. "He understands this addiction thing."
Stabeno, 50, a South Philadelphia native who has worked in addiction services for nearly 28 years, had a big vision: to open a sober-living house in Sewell for 30 men in recovery.
But after multiple postponements of meetings to present his plan to the township - the most recent last week - Stabeno is stepping back from the project, citing a lack of blessing from the Camden diocese and Bishop Dennis Sullivan.
"I'm not even permitted to be the primary mover," Stabeno said. "We didn't realize it was going to become so public. I needed to get permission from the bishop before doing this."
Stabeno, whose plans became public through media accounts this year, had intended to oversee the facility through his nonprofit Prodigal House Foundation. The organization helps offset living costs for those entering recovery - and, on darker days, to help pay for funeral arrangements.
Camden diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said the church learned of Stabeno's proposal through a news story.
"Diocesan policy does not permit priests to engage in outside ministries or enter into legal contracts like this without the expressed written consent of the bishop," Feuerherd said in an e-mail. Sullivan instructed Stabeno to withdraw the application.
Stabeno said the diocese also had questioned his credentials to operate the facility. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology and two master's degrees, in health-care education and divinity, with a specialization in pastoral counseling.
Stabeno's plan for the Delsea Drive building that fronts Salina Road - now home to Body Max Gym and a chiropractor's office - was to charge each tenant $150 per week and lease to own the property.
He had intended to name the facility Pope Francis House of Hope, a nod to the current Catholic leader who has encouraged the church to help the marginalized.
"I don't know why [the diocese] would balk at doing something good right now," he said. "It's needed in Washington Township. It's needed all over."
Although Stabeno has withdrawn his application, he plans to shepherd Parent-to-Parent, a vocal support group founded by four mothers of addicts, toward fulfilling the vision. Three of the group's founders lost their children to addiction.
Drug addiction has been at the forefront of the state's social consciousness recently in part because of a staggering increase in heroin-related overdoses. Some have labeled it the state's No. 1 health-care crisis.
Ocean County had 112 heroin-related deaths in 2013, compared to 53 the previous year. Last year, Gloucester County reported that of 71 deaths linked to drugs, 50 were related to morphine or heroin. In 2012, 31 of 57 drug-related fatalities were.
"As a priest, the most difficult thing is . . . to see a casket and to see parents walking behind it," Stabeno said.
The Rev. Michael Matveenko, pastor of Stabeno's parish, said he supported Stabeno's work but described the housing project as new for the church. "I guess that's why John needed to discuss that with the bishop first."
Feuerherd said Sullivan was in touch with Catholic Charities, the social-services arm of the diocese, about developing ways to address addiction and recovery.
Catholic Charities executive director Kevin Hickey said the organization referred addicts seeking help to a number of services. And its counselors work to assist them through therapy, he said.
For people who complete treatment, proponents of a sober-living facility say, stable housing provides a critical first step on the road of recovery.
Assessing the need
Gauging how many beds in New Jersey are earmarked for those in recovery is difficult, experts say, but advocates see the need.
Frank Greenagel Jr., chairman of a state task force that compiled a report released in March on heroin and opiate abuse in New Jersey, likened the mutual support in housing to something the public can understand: "It's much easier to work out or diet if you have a partner."
Greenagel, who oversees recovery-centric housing on Rutgers University campuses, said recovering addicts were four times more likely to remain clean in specialized housing than in a typical dorm.
Stabeno said the Pope Francis House would likely seek a boardinghouse license through the state Department of Community Affairs.
The department does not track how many of the state's nearly 150 licensed boardinghouses are dedicated to sober living, a spokeswoman said. The international organization Oxford House, based in Maryland, has more than 100 residences, typically run by the tenants themselves, throughout the state.
Stabeno's plans for the house in Washington Township called for 12 bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and fitness area. A supervisor would live there.
"We always talked about the need for all this," said Parent-to-Parent co-founder Kathleen "Kass" Foster. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be moving forward with something like this."
As Parent-to-Parent pursues opening the facility, it could encounter resistance from neighbors. Foster said she had heard not-in-my-backyard opposition.
A flier distributed in Wellington Manor near the site instructed all concerned about the house to talk to the township Zoning Board, which would grant initial approvals for the facility.
"Protect 'Our Children,' " the flier read. "Inaction is not an option."
Barbara Byrne, 52, a township resident whose son struggles with addiction, directed critics to Hillcrest Memorial Park, a cemetery.
"If anyone questions how bad the epidemic is, they can really just walk around in there and read off some of the names," Byrne said.
Not all neighbors are worried, though.
"It's people who are trying to get their lives back together," said Terry Wall, a management consultant who lives near the property. "I support it. I know I'm probably in the minority."
His wife, Eileen, added: "It's just the Christian thing."