Not since the Great Depression have unemployment, food insecurity, and financial struggles been as severe for families across the country – particularly in areas served by Holy Name Province outreach ministries. The COVID-19 pandemic has put thousands of first-timers on food pantry lines and unemployment rolls – and some who would normally contribute to assistance programs now find themselves on the receiving end of the help. How have longtime HNP ministries – St. Francis Inn, Francis House, the Breadline – been able to sustain the support of donors and benefactors so that they could meet the burgeoning needs created by the pandemic? How have Franciscan ministries fared, have HNP friends and supporters been more generous, and what does this generosity say about the human spirit? Below, friars and laypeople share their thoughts on the challenges of raising funds, navigating the pressure on their resources, and meeting increased demands during a pandemic.
Generosity Flowing at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
On a recent Sunday morning when grab-and-go meals were being packaged for guests at St. Francis Inn, the last of the bottled water reserves went out the door – which had Fred Dilger, OFM, wondering where they’d get the next day’s supply. That same morning, at 10 a.m., a team member posted on social media a photo of the empty space where the bottled drinks are normally stored. Within 75 minutes, a car rolled up to the soup kitchen in the Kensington neighborhood with 11 cases of water – and two days later, the friars, nuns, and four Franciscan Volunteer Ministers at the Inn were navigating a maze of 600 donated cases of water and fruit juices. This is just one example of the overwhelming support that St. Francis Inn has experienced throughout the pandemic.
“We have a philosophy at the Inn – ‘God will provide.’ Generosity has been through the roof, nothing short of amazing. The doorbell rings all day long with people dropping off donations. You stop bagging bread or whatever you’re doing and help unload a car or van,” said Fred, who has been part of the Inn’s core team for nearly 15 years. Another person drove two hours to deliver 40 cases of water and asked for directions to the local big-box store to pick up more. “The tougher it gets for everyone,” says Fred, “the more generous and empathetic people become. Never underestimate love for the poor. People respond when there’s a crisis.”
This has never been more evident than in the response by the Inn’s corps of volunteers. Although sidelined since March 2020 when restaurant-style service switched to grab-and-go packaged breakfast and dinner, volunteers have found another way to give their time, talent, and labor. “Our volunteers became supporters. They donate food and different necessities, like hand-warmers, hats, and gloves. They hold drives in their own communities to collect food and toiletries. Our volunteers are a perfect example of people rising to the occasion,” said Fred, a member of the HNP Provincial Council.
In addition to thousands of pounds of meat, produce, grocery staples, and other daily and weekly food donations picked up by the Inn’s van from supermarket, big-box, and other retail and wholesale chains – such as ACME markets, BJ’s, Giordano’s meat purveyors, and Tastykake – help of the grassroots variety comes in many forms. Parishioners of local churches and students of area schools donate clothing to the Inn’s thrift shop – which hasn’t missed a day during the pandemic – and food and sandwiches to the Inn, among them nearby St. Bridget Parish, which continues to drop off 1,000 homemade sandwiches every Saturday morning. Monetary donations also help keep the lights on, as well as purchase items that occasionally may be in short supply.
The generosity of donors, large and small, corporate and individual, during the pandemic has made food so abundant that St. Francis Inn has taken on the new role of distribution center – providing food to sidewalk ministries, local churches, and food pantries, and programs such as a residence for women formerly incarcerated and recovering from addiction. This gives the Inn a wider reach into the Philadelphia community and also achieves its daily goal of getting food into the hands of everyone who needs it.
“We always distribute everything we have that day so we can start fresh the next day,” said Fred, who is the guardian of the Jupiter Friary across the street from St. Francis Inn. “We err on the side of generosity,” added Fred.
The overabundance of donations during the pandemic has enabled the Inn to increase the number of senior citizens and families with young children in its home delivery service of groceries, produce, and meats. The team has also set up huge boxes in the courtyard filled with bags of produce, bread, and other staples made available to guests after they pick up their pre-packaged breakfast and dinner, according to Fred, who owned a successful architectural and design firm with offices in Atlanta and New York City before leaving behind his career for a religious vocation with Holy Name Province.
With the Inn referred to as “home” and “family” by many of its guests, Christmas and holiday celebrations have become important annual events. Although they were canceled, the team still managed to distribute gifts to children and families through the generosity of donors and resources provided by the Province Development Office. “Witnessing the daily faith and humanity at St. Francis Inn during the pandemic has been very renewing – and not just from those responding to the needs of the poor, but also watching guests caring for and sharing with one another,” said Fred, a solemnly-professed friar since 2009. “People can say what they want about what the world has become, but the majority of people are helping each other get through this difficult time. When guests tell me they feel blessed, most people would wonder how that’s possible, given that they have so little. But I interpret those words to mean that we – through the generosity of our donors – are showing them how much God loves them.”
‘Religious’ Donors Respond to Development Office in New York City
Across the past 12 months, donations sent to the HNP Development Office have often been accompanied by encouraging notes and letters – supporters speaking passionately about being part of the important work of Franciscan service to the poor. It is this commitment and desire – and unwavering generosity – of friends and supporters of Holy Name Province that has enabled the Development Office to provide for outreach ministries and programs, and create new initiatives, during the pandemic even when safety and health restrictions upended two of its major annual fundraising events.
“As a Province and as Franciscan friars, we have always recognized that our friends and supporters are part of our work. I remind people that when they’re giving to the Franciscans, their donations are going directly to the poor. It’s consistent with our mantra that we don’t beg for ourselves, but rather for the people we help,” said David Convertino, OFM, HNP executive director of development. “Religious donors tend to step up during a crisis. It’s part of our DNA as Catholics to help others. Catholics, in particular, believe that without good works, faith is nothing. I think people in general, people of all faiths, are reaching out more than usual. Our Province friends and supporters may be donating from afar, but they know that they are part of something big,” added David, a member of the Provincial Council since 2014.
No better example is the response to the Franciscan Relief Fund, which the Development Office established last spring at the height of the pandemic to provide $100 Stop & Shop supermarket vouchers to those in the restaurant, hospitality, service, and entertainment industries. To date, the Franciscan Relief Fund has distributed vouchers to 4,000 families, many of them undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify for unemployment and other government assistance, according to David, who said the friars at the St. Francis Friary on West 31st Street “are very strong about praying daily for the Province’s cherished friends and supporters because without them, we wouldn’t be able to serve the poor.”
St. Francis Breadline, which operates on the sidewalk in front of the 31st Street church and is a ministry supported by direct donations and the Development Office, hasn’t missed a day during the pandemic – providing nourishment for more than 300 guests, and as many as 400, every day. Donations have been so robust that Franciscans Deliver has been able to increase its weekly delivery of grocery staples, produce, and meats to additional homebound elderly and poor. Increased donations have also enabled the program to expand its reach and support other food programs and soup kitchens across the city – including the food pantry at the Upper West Side Parish of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great, and the food pantry at CREATE, Inc., the non-profit organization in Harlem founded by the recently deceased Benedict Taylor, OFM.
Another financial support for Development Office programs has come through brisk sales at the e-commerce Franciscan Store, which offers an extensive catalog of Franciscan-centric religious items. “People can buy a gift and support a cause at the same time,” said David, noting that the loss of in-person events has been made up by an expanded online presence – including things like the live-streamed Lenten Wednesday Masses from St. Anthony’s Guild, which had more than 4,000 views, and the “Pillars of Lent,” a meditation on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving every Sunday during Lent whose first broadcast had 20,000 views.
Although it canceled the Franciscan Challenge, which raises money one Sunday a year through parishioner pledges at HNP parishes and diocesan parishes staffed by friars, the Development Office has turned the postponement of another of its biggest fundraisers – and one of its most popular events – into a unique opportunity. So successful was last year’s pivot to an online version of “A Night of Stars” – the Development Office’s annual fundraiser where Broadway talent performs at a cocktails-and-hors d’oeuvres reception – that this year’s in-person event, scheduled for Sept. 27, will also be live-streamed on the internet to piggyback off the success of attracting new supporters and friends who prefer to attend remotely.
The Development Office’s expanded social media presence will soon roll out innovative programming that will include recorded video series, a daily meditation calendar, reflections, books, and other spiritual and faith-building opportunities. There are plans, too, for a Christmas-in-July sale on the Franciscan Store website. “The generosity and response we have seen on the development level reinforce what we believe as Franciscans – that people are inherently good. Catholicism has a reputation of ‘no’ – don’t do this, stay away from that – but real Catholicism is very optimistic about human nature. The more human we become, the more divine we become – and I think we have seen this during the pandemic,” said David.
Twice as Many Families in Need, No One Turned Away at St. Francis House
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of families showing up for a helping hand at the doorstep of St. Francis House in Dumfries, Virginia, has doubled. None of them have been turned away. That is largely due to the generous response by parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in nearby Triangle, and collaboration with other area organizations, which has translated into more than 7,500 pounds of food being distributed weekly by Francis House.
“When we told our parishioners that the needs of Francis House doubled, they responded with amazing generosity by increasing their donations, whether providing more financial help or dropping off more food at the collection bins at the church. They have gone above and beyond during the pandemic to make sure the needs of all families are covered,” said John O’Connor, OFM, pastor of St. Francis Parish.
“The response demonstrates the willingness of people to help complete strangers. It is inspiring to see that the human spirit, even in tough times, never wanes – that people have not forgotten their fellow citizens. Even people who are getting by realizing there are families that are worse off than them. The generous become more generous, and people just become more acutely aware of the needs of others in times of crisis,” continued John, a certified firefighter and lead chaplain/battalion chief of the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue.
“Our parishioners also know that Francis House is a pillar, a beacon, in the community – and more so now during the pandemic, which is why they are always the first to respond to calls to action,” added John, noting that in addition to dropping off food, parishioners have enrolled in a program with a local large retailer that delivers food to the church earmarked for Francis House.
Despite demands on its resources that would be daunting to others, Francis House has remained fully operational throughout the pandemic, providing emergency food assistance weekly to more than 110 families – bags filled with non-perishable groceries, meats, produce, and other essentials – so that parents can put nutritious food on the table for their children. It has also provided emergency financial assistance to help people pay utility bills and partial rent payments. Normally, this would cover only families in the Triangle, Dumfries, and Quantico communities, but in this time of the pandemic, the reach of Francis House now extends to the Fairfax County line.
Although Francis House, which was established 25 years ago, has been operating with fewer volunteers to meet safety and health guidelines, it has continued to provide hot dinners at its homeless shelter program since last November to 80 individuals – a number that has also doubled during the pandemic. Starting next month, the daily meal will be switched to breakfast.
The generosity of parishioners and donors is allowing Francis House to distribute more food than ever, according to John, who says that in addition to the regular bags of groceries, families are receiving supplemental boxes of perishable and non-perishable food that are being provided through a partnership with the Prince William County Food Bank.
“They know our reach into the community is vast, they know our reputation for getting the food into the hands of the people who need it most, so they contacted us early into the pandemic,” explained John, who serves on a community affairs committee established by a local legislator that helps identify needs in the community. “Since the pandemic began, we have worked more closely with other local area organizations. Francis House is so highly regarded that when people call the county hotline seeking emergency food and financial assistance, ours is the first number they are provided,” continued John, who also serves on the public relations committee of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which provides a voice for the Dioceses of Arlington and Richmond in the greater community.
“For our parishioners, supporters, volunteers, and friars, there couldn’t be a better sense of accomplishment, knowing that we are helping those in need. It has been such a blessing to know that we have the resources week in and week out to help our brothers and sisters facing unimaginable struggles,” he said.
Staying Connected at the Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts
When all things normal were imploding and everything and everyone was in lockdown by mid-March of last year, St. Anthony Shrine had already been communicating with worshippers, friends, supporters, and donors through an electronic newsletter that was distributed on the first Friday of every month. After in-person worship, ministries and programs were suspended, the newsletter became even more essential to communicating with the outside world – and, to a large extent, says Maryanne Rooney-Hegan, director of development at the Shrine, the e-newsletter has been a vital connection to friends and supporters and their continued generosity, which has enabled the friars to continue their outreach to the poor and marginalized, whose needs have become even greater during the pandemic.
“One of the most important things we can do is communicate. We want to stay visible to the many friends and benefactors with whom we have relationships and are part of the Arch Street family. We want to make sure people are alright and we also want to make them aware of what the friars need, not for themselves but for the people they serve,” said Rooney-Hegan, noting that the decision was made to distribute the e-newsletter every two weeks, instead of once a month, during the pandemic.
“By making them aware of the needs of others and how the Shrine is addressing these needs, our donors have been extremely supportive and generous. Those who are able to give have been giving more. I receive so many calls from stretch-gift donors who want to stretch their donations a little more. When people see what we are doing, it’s the motivation for them to give,” said Rooney-Hegan.
The Shrine has effectively provided updates on the work of Mary Ann Ponti, director of outreach. Since the Women’s Medical Clinic at the Shrine has been closed for renovations during a good part of the pandemic, Ponti hits the pavement every day to check on clients and hand out care packages of hygiene products, facemasks, bottled water, and snacks. If someone appears to require medical attention, Ponti will contact Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, partners with the Shrine on the Women’s Medical Clinic. In addition, Ponti spends a great deal of time listening to the homeless. assessing their needs and making referrals.
“Mary Ann is doing extraordinary work on the frontlines. Typical of the Franciscan charism, she meets the people where they are. She knows all of their hangouts and locations where the homeless congregate. Oftentimes, the homeless are waiting for her when she arrives. Her efforts were even more significant when the city was locked down because the streets were deserted and there was no one to else to ask for help,” Rooney-Hegan said.
The e-newsletter has led to calls from supporters asking how they could help. The stories, says Rooney-Hegan, are heartwarming, plentiful, and not at all unusual; for example, a businessman in a nearby office building who donated a truckful of tomatoes, squash, and other produce harvested from his extensive home garden. The bounty, in turn, was distributed to families that seek assistance from the Franciscan Food Center, the Arch Street food pantry that has been providing groceries, meats, fruit, dairy and vegetables out of the Shrine’s garage loading dock. Despite the shutdown, Mary Ann Ponti continued to serve the members of the Franciscan Food Center in a safe environment.
Another call came from someone whose daughter, a third-year high school student, chose the Shrine as a food drive recipient for her school project. Ponti provided a list tailored to the pandemic for street outreach, particularly for women. One week later, the student arrived with two SUVs filled with hygiene products, nutritional snacks, fruit juices, and a mountain of other items. A retail store that had to close during the pandemic provided 70 cases of water. Another supporter, after asking her friends to buy gifts for the Shrine’s women’s clinic, made up 20 gift bags with sanitizers, hygiene, and other products that Ponti handed out on her daily excursions.
Rooney-Hegan said that despite the long pause preventing her and Thomas Conway, OFM, executive director of the Shrine, from meeting in person with donors and benefactors, they have been keeping people engaged in other ways – through the e-newsletter, social media, streaming Masses online, counseling, spiritual direction, and direct-mail devotional pieces that focus on a different ministry each month – that have enabled the Arch Street church to exceed its fundraising goals and continue its outreach to the poor and marginalized of the greater Boston area.
Instead of its annual fundraising gala, the Shrine hosted a free virtual event on Dec. 8, called “Where All Are Welcome,” which featured performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, star power from the Boston area, guest speakers that included friars and donors, a video on the women’s clinic, and other informational and entertaining presentations. It was attended by more than 450 people. “There was no charge to attend and you could watch from the comfort of your home. It was another way to engage and communicate,” said Rooney-Hegan, noting that the event yielded new donors and a follow-up call from a woman who wanted to increase her recurring gift to the Shrine.
“If you want people to invest in your mission, you have to tell your story and explain how their investment can make a difference in someone’s life. People are aware of the good work at the Shrine, but you can’t take things for granted – especially in the current climate. People are more cognizant of the needs created by the pandemic. We see that in the checks we receive out of the blue from new donors. But you have to communicate with people and let them know what you’re doing,” Rooney-Hegan said.
“It’s been inspiring to me to see how the friars have adapted to the pandemic because everyone’s work has been impacted differently,” said Tom. “The friars primarily involved in sacramental work had to find completely new ways to be engaged and productive in the life here. Other friars, those involved in counseling, teaching and chaplaincy, for example, merely adapted their method of delivery. Our guardian, Frank Sevola, has been great about keeping the community’s morale up.”
NJ Shore Community Provides Support to St. Francis Parish, Center
“Unbelievable” is the word that Francis Di Spigno, OFM, used to describe the generosity of parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish when they responded to an appeal letter last November.
“The response was wonderful and their generosity unbelievable. The result was much higher than expected. We’re in a much better position financially than we were in November, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Francis, pastor of the parish since September. He decided to send the letter to 4,500 people – a combination of registered parishioners and those who purchased tickets for the annual car raffle – to help the parish climb out of an operating deficit caused by the loss of Sunday collection revenue when churches were shut down for three months to in-person worship and attendance continued at minimal levels even when they reopened to restricted capacity during summer months.
With more people than usual living on Long Beach Island — many working remotely during the winter months because of the pandemic — the friars have kept three of the four parish churches open (usually, three of the four are closed in the winter) to offer a variety of Mass options for year-round residents and others so that none of the Masses exceed the 50 percent capacity limit, according to Andrew Reitz, OFM, guardian of the St. Francis Friary.
“People appreciate the many options and have been generous in the collections,” said Andrew, noting that the main church, St. Francis of Assisi in Brant Beach, offers four Masses, St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Beach Haven two Masses, and St. Thomas of Villanova Church in Surf City three Masses. “We’re seeing more people on the shore since the pandemic, but particularly during the winter because of changes in weather patterns and people not having the worry of snow while they travel. We were surprised by the good turnout on Ash Wednesday this year.”
The community room at the Brant Beach church is a COVID-19 vaccination site two days a week, according to Andrew, which is helping to reach vulnerable populations that also depend on the parish’s St. Francis Community Center, which has been operational throughout the pandemic. Established in 1972, the Community Center has consistently been providing food assistance through its pantry program and other support services over the past 12 months. Francis said that although funding is down, people have been generous in their support with food donations to the Community Center.
Mountain Auction Proceeds Exceed Expectations at Mt. Irenaeus in Western NY
When Mt. Irenaeus launched its annual Mountain Auction last November, Mike Fenn, executive director of the Province’s Mountain retreat since 2016, admitted that the economic uncertainties of the pandemic had everyone hoping for the best and preparing for the worst in terms of the revenue that the fundraiser would generate. But the nine-day auction, from Nov. 6 to 15, raised approximately 50 percent more than the total proceeds of the previous year.
“We were blown away by the generosity of Mountain supporters for our online auction, especially since the coronavirus prohibited us from sponsoring trips that usually raise a lot of money. Despite the lack of big-ticket items, support was still tremendous,” said Fenn. The items that carried the silent auction included artwork and photography of the spectacular Mountain landscape by Dan Riley, OFM, a co-founder of Mt. Irenaeus, delectable treats created by the friars with ingredients from the Mountain gardens, hand-crafted wooden crosses, and St. Bonaventure University apparel and gifts.
The Mountain’s other major annual fundraiser, the Giving Tuesday campaign, attracted 33 percent more gifts and 75 percent more than the total amount pledged in the previous year. “These, too, were tremendous results. We were especially thankful to those donors who put up matching funds and motivated first-time pledges from younger SBU alumni. This clearly played a big role in helping us meet and exceed our goals and expectations,” said Fenn.
“It has been an amazing and successful year in raising funds for capital projects, overall operations, and programs at the Mountain. The proceeds support the Mountain community’s work to live and share a Franciscan lifestyle of simplicity, solitude, and service,” said Fenn, who also attributed the generosity to employed individuals who repurposed unused cash that they otherwise would’ve spent on travel and entertainment if not for shutdowns and restrictions.
Fenn also believes that technology played a significant role in the successful fundraising efforts at Mt. Irenaeus during the pandemic. The friars had to find new ways to bring the Mountain to others since the retreat center was closed to visitors.
“With the help of talented and passionate volunteers, the brothers have used technology to continue the mission of the Mountain. They’re doing more than ever using virtual and online platforms. All of the brothers have pitched in with many live gatherings at the Mountain that are either recorded and posted or streamed live on Facebook,” said Fenn, citing Dan’s podcasts and daily Instagram reflections as examples. He said the feedback on these virtual events has been extremely positive and that the friars will be doing more Mountain in the Home events via Zoom conference with a number of different groups to bring the Mt. Irenaeus community virtually to others across the country.
The Franciscan Faceoff: SBU vs. Siena
On March 17, St. Bonaventure University and Siena College – both HNP-sponsored colleges – went head-to-head in the first-ever Franciscan Faceoff, a friendly fundraising challenge to see who can generate the most donations. The colleges usually face off annually on the hardwood in the men’s basketball contest for the Br. Ed Coughlin Franciscan Cup. But when this year’s competition was canceled due to the pandemic, officials at both colleges came up with the Franciscan Faceoff to replace the Franciscan Cup – the latter named after Edward Coughlin, OFM, who was president of Siena in 2019 when he passed away unexpectedly following heart surgery. The SBU community is mourning the recent loss of its president, Dennis DePerro, who died from complications of COVID-19. The funds raised at both colleges will be used to enhance the lives of students through scholarship assistance and academic support.
For 24 hours, the colleges competed to post the highest number of participants and the total amount of donations generated. Donors had the opportunity to join various giving challenges, create their own challenge, or support another participant or team.
In a joint press release issued before the competition, Mike Utzig, senior associate director of the Siena annual fund, said, “The Franciscan Faceoff will be a day of fundraising support for our communities, with ultimate bragging rights on the line.” Added Alan Riddle, director of annual giving at SBU, “We wish our sister school well, but we’re confident that our Bona alumni and friends will rise to the challenge and propel us to victory in the first-ever Franciscan Faceoff.” The fundraising began with a sense of unity with a St. Patrick’s Day message delivered by Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, on Zoom.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas contributed research to this article.
- “Ministry Outreach Intensifies in a Changed World” — April 9, 2020, HNP Today
- “Province’s Relief Fund Helps Families Facing Food Struggles “– July 10, 2020, HNP Today
- “A Night of Stars — An Evening of Friend-raising’ — Oct. 31, 2018, HNP Today