In 1970, the West Bank in Minneapolis was the Twin Cities version of Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco neighborhood synonymous with the counterculture of the era.
In the mix with those living in communes and protesting the war in Vietnam were a number of young people who had run away from home and wound up knocking on the door at the nearby residence of Sister Rita Steinhagen.
Seeing a need to help young people who lacked homes, Steinhagen enlisted the help of Marlene Barghini, another nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, to create an emergency shelter that’s still operating today as part of a nonprofit group called the Bridge For Youth.
Barghini believed the kids who sought shelter should not be treated as if they were delinquents but should instead be understood in a broader family dynamic, said Mary Casey Ladd, a social worker.
“Rather than trying to think about what’s wrong with them, we should be trying to figure out what happened to them — what’s happening to them and what’s happening with their families,” Ladd said, recalling Barghini’s outlook.
“It was not common to try and have an intervention that reached the whole family,” she said. “Marlene would say: ‘Use the crisis of running away from home as a way to reach the entire family system.’ ”
Barghini, the first executive director at the Minneapolis-based nonprofit, died March 31, at age 86. The next day, the Bridge For Youth opened a new program for homeless teen parents called Marlene’s Place, in Barghini’s honor.
“Her memory will live on,” said Michelle Basham, the group’s current executive director.
Marlene Ann Barghini was born and raised on the East Side of St. Paul. At age 17, she joined Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the religious order that founded Minnesota’s first hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.
Barghini taught elementary school before earning a master’s degree in counseling. After Steinhagen invited her to help create the shelter, Barghini served as executive director for a decade.
In 1972, she testified before a congressional subcommittee about the importance of crisis counseling hotlines like the one her nonprofit had instituted. The Bridge For Youth has expanded to include a variety of social services for runaway and homeless youth, Basham said.
“The approach to this day in our emergency shelter program, which is the program that Marlene would have worked in, continues to be: We don’t blame the youth, we don’t blame the parents,” Basham said. “We approach both as: They’re going through a really hard time and they need some help.”
Barghini was a Catholic nun for 23 years. When she stopped serving as executive director at the Bridge, she entered private practice in couples and family therapy, said Ladd, who is now a therapist in Duluth.
Family members knew of Barghini’s involvement in the Bridge as well as her regular attendance at political protests with the “Sisters of Peace,” who for years have gathered on Wednesday evenings on the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they didn’t realize the depth of her community contributions because Barghini was humble and didn’t talk about accomplishments, said Ken Barghini, her nephew.
Julia Cobbs remembers Barghini as a funny and supportive aunt who was always present in the family’s life, sharing her love of music, dogs, Vikings football and women’s basketball at the University of Minnesota.
“She was just a great spirit and soul,” said Cobbs, who is co-host of an afternoon radio show on myTalk 107.1 with her sister-in-law Lori Barghini (who is Ken’s wife).
Barghini is survived by nieces, nephews and cousins. A celebration of Barghini’s life is scheduled for May 26 at 3 p.m. at DeGidio’s, 425 W. 7th St., in St. Paul.