Franciscan Influences: Serving the Poor, Learning about Goodness

Thea Sinclair Features


Author Thea Sinclair serving at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Thea)

This essay is part of a series by Holy Name Province’s partners-in-ministry. In the previous, a retired ship pilot described his admiration for Mychal Judge, OFM, who died on Sept. 11 in New York City when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Here, a North Carolina resident, whose high school friend became a friar, describes what she appreciates about volunteering each year at Philadelphia’s St. Francis Inn, as she first did eight Octobers ago.

My husband Mark and I knew that when we retired, we wanted to spend a year serving the poor somewhere in the world. We were attracted to international service – and though we had heard about the Franciscan Mission Service from my high school friend George Corrigan, OFM, who had volunteered in Kenya – we eliminated that idea because we didn’t have any language skills other than English. Also, our two married daughters were starting their families and didn’t want us to be away for three years.

With the help of the Catholic Volunteer Network, we began researching domestic service opportunities that would accept married couples over 55 years old. After a period of discernment, we narrowed our choices from 28 placements to just four. One of these was St. Francis Inn in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a place where Fr. George had served during his novitiate.

Neither of us had ever spent time in a big city, although we both had been involved with mission trips to poor rural areas of Mississippi and Appalachia. We had been told to arrive on a Thursday morning in time for 8:30 Mass at the Inn. We overestimated how long it would take and arrived about 7 a.m. It was a lovely October morning in 2008, and we were taken aback by the large number of people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Inn.

No Need to Be Anxious
We sat in our car, reading a newspaper, when we heard a tapping on the window. We nearly jumped out of our seats, fearing an attack. Instead, we saw a friendly, robed Franciscan wondering if we were the “couple from North Carolina thinking about volunteering.” We were indeed, and we entered the St. Francis Inn, working with Franciscan friars Michael Duffy, OFM, Xavier de la Huerta, OFM, and Fred Dilger, OFM. By the end of our two days of living with this community and serving the meals, we were convinced that this was the place God wanted us to be.

Ten months later, we returned and entered into the daily rhythm of the Franciscan friars, sisters, and lay men and women who were part of the Eucharistic community that ran the Inn. Our day began with the Mass, and ended during the week with Evening Prayer.

We learned about the different orders of Franciscans, the history of the Tau cross, the life of Francis and Clare, and met various postulants and novices as they progressed in their paths to becoming friars. We were challenged by the homilies of Patrick Sieber, OFM, and Bill DeBiase, OFM. We also got to know past and present members of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, young people giving a year in service under the auspices of Holy Name Province.

Though my husband and I did not come from a Franciscan parish nor had we been educated by Franciscans, we both had a great love of nature and God’s creation, and felt very much at home in a Franciscan community. Working with the friars and the rest of the team at the Inn, seeing their compassion for the poor, the homeless, the addicts and the prostitutes, made us aware of the goodness in the world and how it was possible to live the Gospel, preaching without words.

Sharing  The Love of Jesus
After we left St. Francis Inn in 2010, we promised to return each summer to help when the staff is most shorthanded due to vacations and the break between classes of FVMs. Each August, we arrive for a month, and work in the non-air conditioned Inn, trying to share the love of Jesus with the guests in the form of cold drinks, bread and a hot meal.

This summer, I was assigned the job of cook on a Monday. The weather was very warm, and I thought a hot dog supper with some of the fresh corn we had received would be a good menu. On Saturday, Mark and I went through the freezer, searching for hot dogs. I had hoped to give two hot dogs to each person, but all I could find were 300 hot dogs and Italian sausages, with some breakfast sausages included in the count. We were feeding more than 300 guests per meal, so we didn’t have enough hot dogs to meet my needs.

On Sunday morning, as we were preparing the meal, a gentleman named Tom rang the doorbell at the Inn and wanted to know if we could use any hot dogs. Of course, we answered, and were gifted with nine cases of hot dogs left over from a company picnic. With prayers answered for hot dogs, the next step was to find enough buns. On Monday, Mark was assigned pickups and told to look for hot dog buns or other rolls when he stopped at the various donor locations. However, we had another surprise in store. Tom returned with bags of hot dog buns on Monday morning. He said he had a good day at the races, won some money, and used it to buy all of the buns available at ShopRite. I now had enough hot dogs and buns for the meal. That night, 326 guests enjoyed a meal of corn on the cob and hot dogs.

I couldn’t help but thank God for the generosity of our benefactors, and think that God has His own “just in time” supply chain for St. Francis Inn. One of the lessons we have learned from the Franciscan friars is that everything we have is a gift from God, and that there is no need to be anxious. Whether it is turkeys for Thanksgiving, desserts for our daily meals or volunteers to show up on a snowy weekend, God has His own “just in time” supply chain, and all will be delivered when needed. Mark and I have tried to adapt this thinking to our own life as well, and are grateful to the friars, sisters and laypeople that we have met during our time at the St. Francis Inn.

— Thea Sinclair, who graduated from Bishop Moore High School on Orlando, Fla., lives with her husband Mark in Hickory, N.C.  She has been recognized as Science Teacher of the Year for North Carolina and as a national Tandy Technology Teacher.

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