Brooke Astor’s Support of St. Francis Residences Fondly Remembered

ohn Felice In the Headlines

NEW YORK — On Aug. 13, Brooke Astor, the famous socialite and philanthropist, died at the age of 105. The innumerable tributes given in her honor reminded me of the first time we met Mrs. Astor at St. Francis Residence I.

In 1982, when the first residence was up and running, we decided to establish a second residence. It was suggested that we approach foundations to seek support for the new project. We sent out a number of letters to various organizations including the Astor Foundation, and after a few weeks, we got a call from Linda Gillies, its secretary. She said that Mrs. Astor was interested in our work but gave financial support only to projects that she personally visited. A date was quickly set for the following week.

Right on time, Mrs. Astor walked into the residence and shook hands as if we were long-lost friends. We met in our art room and explained to her that we thought the real solution to homelessness, which was rampant at the time, was a permanent home with appropriate social services to help keep people off the streets and out of the hospitals. She understood our simple solution immediately and could not understand why politicians were so reluctant to follow our example.

At the end of the conversation, we gave her a tour of the first floor. We also showed her a room on the second floor occupied by a woman named Nancy, who was very neat and had lots of her paintings on her walls. While in the room, Mrs. Astor noticed some newspaper clippings on the wall from the society pages of the 1920s. Nancy’s father was a famous banker, and they were stories of her wedding to a shipping magnate.

Mrs. Astor was stunned to find out that she and Nancy had gone to the same school. Like two school chums, they recalled the past. Nancy asked: “Whatever happened to Prince Igor?” Where was so and so today? Who married who? Mrs. Astor was deeply moved that one of her own classmates would wind up mentally ill and homeless.

While they drove back to the foundation headquarters, Mrs. Gillies called to say that Mrs. Astor was going to give us $100,000. We were elated but we did not know the real significance of this gift until much later. On the strength of Mrs. Astor’s gift, many foundations donated grants to both St. Francis Residence II and III in the years ahead. The greatest gift that Mrs. Astor gave us was credibility.

When The New York Times did a cover story on Mrs. Astor for its Sunday Magazine, she insisted that her picture be taken at St. Francis Residence II. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, a documentary was produced, and the residences were filmed as an example of her philanthropy. Mrs. Astor remained a generous friend and supporter for many years. She was a gracious, sharp, down-to-earth woman with a keen sense of humor. We will forever be grateful to her for her enthusiastic promotion of supportive housing as a solution to homelessness in New York and around the country.

— Fr. John is president of Holy Name Province’s St. Francis Friends of the Poor, which operates as the residences. He founded the residences with friars John McVean and Thomas Walters.