This is the second in a series of articles that HNP Today is publishing about the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having around the Province – reporting how friars, partners-in-ministry, volunteers, parishioners and ministry sites are creating a “new normal” since early in the week of March 15, when many states closed schools, churches and other institutions to avoid large gatherings in an attempt to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. The first article reported how friars throughout the Province are bringing virtual prayer and worship into the homes of parishioners, friends and supporters of HNP.
The resolve of Franciscan food pantries, financial assistance programs, and other social services – havens such as St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, the Franciscan Food Center in Boston, and Francis House in northern Virginia, among others – is being tested like never before.
The COVID-19 coronavirus has made the mission of these outreach ministries even more crucial. As one friar put it, hunger and need do not go away because of a pandemic. In fact, greater numbers of families and individuals in financial distress are showing up on the doorsteps of these iconic Franciscan ministries throughout the Province.
Despite this unprecedented global health crisis, key Franciscan outreach services have remained fully operational. Besides providing food, financial help and other support, they are sources of compassion, faith, reassurance and stability in a world where life as we know it has been turned upside down.
This overview provides a look at some of these services and programs – how friars and their partners-in-ministry are adapting to government directives, safely staffing sites with volunteers, and managing to meet deepening demands while coping with the possibility of doing more with less resources.
Philadelphia’s St. Francis Inn
The coronavirus outbreak has sparked many radical, but necessary changes at the Franciscan soup kitchen known as St. Francis Inn, in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – where a team of HNP friars, women religious of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., and volunteers have been ministering to the poor and homeless for more than 40 years.
“This has been an immense challenge to our ministry, but since the start of this crisis, we are trying to stay ahead of the curve with two basic goals – feeding those in need and keeping everyone safe,” said Michael Duffy, OFM, a co-director of St. Francis Inn. “We made some drastic changes and are doing things very differently than what our team and guests are used to, but the main goal is for people to get meals and for them to stay healthy. It’s working.”
The Inn was one of the first soup kitchens in Philadelphia to close its dining room and switch to carry-out dinners. Despite the shift to take-out, guest movement and flow during pick-up was reconfigured to further prevent people from congregating.
Preparing a decent meal for carry-out requires far more intensive preparation and packaging, according to Michael, which resulted in the decision to provide one main meal a day, rather than serving breakfast and dinner as the team normally does.
The entire operation is now being carried out by the permanent team and three members of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry. “All of our spring break colleges cancelled student service trips to the Inn, and we lost our local area volunteers – students, retirees and residents – because of the stay-at-home order by elected officials,” Michael said.
The hands-on workforce was further reduced to seven or eight individuals – less than half of the 19 people it usually takes to serve a regular meal – when it was decided that the elders of the St. Francis Inn staff would be safer working from their residences and performing tasks such as coordinating donations, maintaining records, and doing computer work.
“Clearly, one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest, is the care of our staff – not only the physical demands of the work routine, but the added burden of living in these times with an invisible, life-threatening virus all around us,” Michael said.
“We are doing all that we can to keep everyone safe, including educating and encouraging our guests to observe the guidelines of social distancing. Sometimes, they don’t respond too well, as evidenced by the front-page photo of a recent edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer that showed our guests crowding around as they waited to be fed,” said Michael, adding, “We try our best to lead by example, as our staff follows all of the guidelines, wearing gloves and masks, and constantly wiping down surfaces with disinfectant and keeping distance from others.”
Friars and the team have been working with the city’s health department, as officials have visited the Inn to provide instruction on guidelines, procedures, and implementation of cautionary and preventive practices.
Michael described the Inn’s food supply as a “roller-coaster ride. At first, we received little or no food from our usual donors because citizens were raiding grocery shelves to stock up,” explained Michael. “Then it went from minimal supplies to local caterers providing tons of excess food because of dozens of event cancellations. They gave us all of their semi-prepared food, so our guests were eating like royalty for two or three days.”
But the roller-coaster ride continued when that food source evaporated as caterers closed their doors and laid off most of their staff. “But now the supermarkets are restocked and our daily pick-ups have been restored – plus we’re receiving a surge of food and supplies from people who are shipping goods directly to us in response to the front-page publicity about our outreach ministry in the Inquirer,” said Michael, who asked for continued prayers for the safety and health of the Inn’s guests and staff.
Despite daunting numbers and predictions that the worst of the coronavirus is yet to come, the friars and their team keep forging ahead.
“What keeps us going?” Michael says with a brief pause. “The answer is simple – our faith. We know that the Spirit is still with us. We are so fortunate to be able to have Mass each morning in our chapel (which is not open to the public), sitting apart from one another. Each day, the scripture readings seem to have a different version of the same theme: God is with us!”
He continued, “Each day, we take this message to heart. The Lord is indeed with us. That is what keeps us on point. That is what allows us to still have a sense of humor and refuse to succumb to fear in these troubled times. That is what is reflected in something that the three young Franciscan volunteer ministers told me – that if the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry program is shut down for the rest of the year, they have decided that they will stay and work at the Inn on their own. God truly is with us.”
Boston’s St. Anthony Shrine
Although St. Anthony Shrine has been closed to visitors and most staff members since March 12, the spiritual oasis on Arch Street continues providing essential outreach ministries in greater downtown Boston.
“In the midst of this global crisis, we continue to do all that we can to serve the needs of our sisters and brothers,” said Tom Conway, OFM, the Shrine’s executive director.
Central to these services is the Franciscan Food Center, which is now operating out of the Shrine garage one day a week. Mary Ann Ponti, director of outreach programs, and a team of dedicated volunteers are providing groceries every Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., to families and individuals enrolled at the food center.
“Our volunteers are amazing. Their commitment to carry out the Franciscan mission of caring for the poor is inspiring,” said Tom, adding, “especially under these conditions.”
Another outreach ministry that he said “hasn’t missed a beat” is the Women’s Medical Clinic, a partnership with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program that serves the complex health care needs of homeless women in the downtown area.
Ponti and the clinic’s nurse practitioner have even taken to the streets around the Shrine to distribute informational flyers on COVID-19 to homeless women, answer their questions about symptoms, and offer advice on what they should do if they feel sick.
“They’re providing important information, hand sanitizer, and a clear message that could save lives – telling homeless women not to share cigarettes or drinks, and to keep their distance from each other,” Tom said.
Ponti is also participating in a daily conference call with officials of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, receiving updates on planning efforts, testing sites, and coronavirus-related data.
Times of crisis takes its toll on those in recovery from alcohol and substance dependency – especially during this pandemic, when people are forced to isolate themselves, losing their jobs, and stressing over where they’ll get money to pay their rent.
For these reasons, the Shrine, through its Father Mychal Judge Recovery Center, continues to provide counseling for the recovery community. Like everything else, the program has suspended face-to-face group and individual meetings, and instead has adapted to the new normal by offering phone counseling Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 781-526-3679.
The Shrine continues to offer its Franciscan Spiritual Companionship Ministry, with friars holding sessions by phone, Facetime or Skype. Those wishing to arrange a session should contact David Nolan, the Shrine’s pastoral support services manager, at 617-778-1329.
People are connecting – and in some cases, re-connecting – with their faith and spirituality during this pandemic, according to Dan Murray, OFM. “Now more than ever, we need to be here for people who are seeking spiritual guidance and a deeper relationship with God,” Dan said.
UGA’s Catholic Center
A 15-minute drive from the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, in Athens, is a community called Pine Woods Estates, a trailer park whose residents are non-English-speaking new immigrants, most who work in the hospitality and service industry. They were living below the poverty level before the coronavirus pandemic struck. With restaurants, hotels, residential and commercial cleaning companies, and other service businesses shut down, their paychecks have stopped. Filing for unemployment insurance isn’t an option because most of them are undocumented.
But Frank Critch, OFM, director of the Catholic Center – along with two sisters of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – is providing a major lifeline to this marginalized population. The nuns, who work part-time at the Catholic Center, run a ministry at the trailer park called Oasis Catholico, advocating for the immigrant families and providing tutoring and religious instruction. UGA student volunteers tutor many of the children in the community.
“With the university switching from in-person classes on campus, to distance learning online, we have been able to repurpose hundreds of pounds of frozen meats and canned goods from the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia that otherwise would have been designated for the more than 20 percent of the student population that is food-insecure,” explained Frank.
In this case, repurposing has meant stocking the Catholic Center’s emergency food pantry and distributing this bounty to the families in Pine Woods Estates. Frank said the Center also purchases 4,000 pounds of food every month that is distributed to families in need throughout the Athens community.
“At the moment, because this health crisis has put so many people out of work, the need is greater, and therefore we are cooking family meals and delivering them to households in the Oasis Catholico ministry,” said Frank, who is preparing ready-to-go meals and leaving them at the side door of the Catholic Center for families who arrange in advance to pick them up.
“The need is dramatic and we have the resources to respond. We are taking every precaution in our handling and distribution of the food. Keeping everyone safe and fed is the top priority,” said Frank, who managed a restaurant before becoming a friar.
He noted that with the federal government’s focus on the coronavirus, it appears that ICE has other priorities than searching out the undocumented. But that silver lining hasn’t dissipated the fear in the immigrant population of Pine Woods.
“They are now living in fear of this contagion and the consequences if they get sick,” Frank said. “None of them has medical insurance and most live in very tight, cramped housing, so social distancing is not possible. But I am amazed at how these families share what little they have with others in need in their community.
“They show me the value of community. In many ways, they find joy in their poverty,” he added.
St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Greenville
Parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in South Carolina’s upstate region are answering the call with extraordinary generosity during this unparalleled time of need, according to staff member Susan Cinquemani.
“Our food pantry has been open daily and continues to provide food and bottled water assistance, due in large part to the overwhelming response of our parish members who made drive-through and drop-off donations,” said Cinquemani, who explained that an email blast sent to parishioners through another parish ministry, Servant Hearts, made an appeal for donations of food, as well as products that were in short supply at grocery stores to help keep the pantry stocked.
Pat Tuttle, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony, posted a video message on the parish Facebook page expressing gratitude to all who responded with donations. “You guys are amazing! There’s food here that we will give away for two weeks – amazing amounts of food. Now watch this,” said Patrick, as he made his way through a corridor that took him to another room. “And the food pantry – full, floor to ceiling, of what you brought. We will be able to give this out for two to three weeks, massive amounts of food. We had to get another room to accommodate all of the food,” he said, panning with his phone camera the fully stocked, six-foot metal shelves.
In addition to food, the parish also provides financial assistance with bill payments to those in economic distress from losing their jobs – for example, helping pay a utility bill or portion of the rent.
St. Anthony’s also continues to provide counseling through video chat and phone to those who need a spiritual lift as people feel consumed by fear and angst during the pandemic. The friars are also proceeding with the Rites of Christian Initiation via video chat with candidates, and parish representatives are “attending” city council meetings online to stay connected to community issues such as housing and predatory lending.
St. Mary of the Angels Parish
Not far from Greenville, in Anderson, Mike Jones, OFM, reports that the food pantry at St. Mary of the Angels Parish is providing bags of groceries to dozens of families every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. In one week, Michael said the parish purchased nearly 750 pounds of food from Second Harvest Food Bank, a regional distribution program that supplies food and grocery items to charitable organizations.
“We had been doing 40-days/40 cans for Lent, but those donations came to an abrupt end with Mass being suspended – although we have had parishioners generously drop off non-perishable goods in the church,” said Michael, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels. “We had to find a way to ensure continuity of providing food to people in need in our community, so we turned to Second Harvest.”
During this health crisis, the parish has also been sharing resources with the Anderson Emergency Soup Kitchen and Clean Start, the latter a program that provides hygiene and other services to the homeless and people in need.
“Clean Start is providing us with bars of soap so that we can hand them out to the families who come to our food pantry,” said Michael, who noted that parish volunteers have suggested food distribution practices that keep everyone safe and enable the program to remain operative.
St. Francis House in Northern Virginia
At St. Francis House, the outreach center of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Virginia, the food pantry is well stocked and the financial assistance program has the resources to provide a lifeline for those in economic distress – for now, according to pastor John O’Connor, OFM.
Both programs, which collectively distributed $400,000 in food and financial assistance in 2019, have seen an increase in families and individuals flocking to the townhouse that serves as home to these and a number of other outreach initiatives and services. The pantry and financial assistance program are the only two ministries that have remained operational, while others such as immigration legal counseling and ESL, mommy & me, and tutoring classes, have been suspended indefinitely to follow social distancing regulations.
Francis House, which was established in 1992 and now ranks among the top-10 social service programs in northern Virginia, has a budget for financial assistance supported largely by the parish. It is a supplemental program that provides assistance for rent, utility bills, doctor visits, and sometimes transportation-related costs.
John said resources will be tested because in addition to meeting the needs of regular recipients – who are low-income and disadvantaged families – an unforeseen group is emerging, that is, those descending into economic distress from being furloughed or, worse, terminated from their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Many of the people who normally come to Francis House for financial assistance work in the restaurant, housekeeping and other hourly-wage industries – the same ones that have been hit hard by this crisis and economic meltdown. They were among the first to have lost their jobs. In the weeks ahead, we expect people to ask for more help and to have new people turning to us,” said John, who has been stationed at the Triangle parish since 2014 and has served as pastor since August 2017.
The pantry has enough food to cover the next 30 days, even with more families seeking assistance. But it may become increasingly difficult to stock shelves with its main source of support shut down.
“Our biggest amount of food comes from parishioners at our seven Sunday Masses,” said John. “We call children to the altar during the offertory to present gifts for the poor that their families have brought to church – and that’s when they fill baskets at the steps of the altar with non-perishable food.
“But with all Masses suspended to avoid large gatherings, that’s not happening anymore, so we have to come up with other ways to stock our pantry shelves with the tons of food we normally collect at the Masses,” added John, a certified firefighter with the rank of battalion chief who serves as lead chaplain with the Prince William County Virginia Department of Fire Rescue.
With the church open seven days a week for those who want to visit the Blessed Sacrament, parishioners are encouraged to consider dropping off a bag of groceries at the church offices, which are staffed by friars who also take turns at St. Francis Church to make sure visitors are a safe distance from one another, and to hear confessions and talk to those seeking spiritual comfort.
Francis House has taken necessary precautions to protect clients and volunteers by staggering entry into the townhouse – one person, or a couple of members of the same family, at a time. They have also doubled the days that clients can pick up food – normally on Thursdays, but now expanded to every Wednesday and Thursday. Regular clients are assigned a specific time for pick-up to avoid having large numbers of people gathered outside the building – and if a line forms, people are directed to maintain a distance of at least six feet.
Another significant source of support for both the food pantry and financial assistance program has drastically diminished because of Sunday Masses being suspended.
“We allocate money to purchase food for the pantry and to fund the assistance program, but without Sunday Mass collections, our resources are being stretched like never before. We are grateful that parishioners are still giving to the parish electronically, but it’s a fraction of our Sunday collections,” John said. “All of our programs are affected by this – and just how severely over the long run is an unknown.”
John continued, “Like all parishes, we face the challenge of staying afloat financially while providing comfort and calm to parishioners, and continuing outreach. With the nation’s economy in lockdown, more people will seek our intervention. We have to be there for them.”
St. Camillus Community Outside Washington, D.C.
The mission of the food pantry at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, is to promote food security for the parish family and greater community. This mission, like most food outreach ministries across the Province, is being tested like never before. How it holds up depends on the continued generosity of parishioners and supporters.
“It’s a frightening time, asking people to do more when they’re struggling themselves – and being asked to ramp up our outreach when we don’t know where the money will come from,” said Christopher Posch, OFM, pastor, noting that although the Capital Area Food Bank is a source for the bulk of the food, the parish food pantry is able to reach more families through the generosity of parishioners and other supporters.
In addition to its own Sunday collections, St. Camillus receives five percent of the Sunday offerings of four other area parishes. Sunday Masses have been cancelled indefinitely, and with that, a drop in the financial support for programs like the food pantry. The need to fund local churches is such a major issue that the Maryland governor went out of his way to highlight this point at a recent press briefing.
“When Governor Larry Hogan was talking about support for small businesses, he said, ‘please don’t forget your local churches,’” said parishioner Tobias Harkleroad, who is the principal of the parish school, St. Francis International School, adjacent to the church.
The food pantry continues to operate on its regular schedule, with volunteers unloading the delivery truck from the Capital Area Food Bank when it arrives at St. Camillus every Thursday. Maintaining a safe distance and avoiding close contact, the volunteers sort the food and stock the shelves. Social distancing measures are strictly followed during food distribution hours, which are 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturdays.
In anticipation of schools shutting down and converting to remote learning, the administration and faculty at St. Francis International School met early on to plan the transition. Part of their discussion focused on concerns that school children – not only SFIS students, but children throughout the Silver Spring and Langley Park communities – would be deprived of daily nutrition provided by the government-funded school breakfast and lunch program.
When the school building closed on March 15, Harkleroad says the nutrition program didn’t shut down with it. Just a few days later, outside the parish’s Camillia Room, SFIS launched grab-and-go meals – a drive-through program in which community residents pull up curbside and, without leaving their vehicles, are handed a pre-packaged breakfast and lunch for each child age 18 and under.
Since starting the program, SFIS had served the equivalent of 12,540 meals, as of April 1, to hundreds of children in the Silver Spring and Langley Park communities.
The program has since relocated its drive-through distribution across the street from St. Camillus, outside the Joanne Leleck public elementary school, and also sends a van to the Langley Park community center – where most residents don’t own a car and can’t drive to Silver Spring. The grab-and-go meals are distributed daily, Monday through Friday, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
The food is purchased through the normal government-funded school nutrition program, according to Harkleroad, who says the pre-made food is packaged at the Camillia Room by postulants at the interprovincial formation house at nearby Holy Name College and members of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry assigned to St. Camillus. All volunteers, who also deliver the food to the two sites, are practicing appropriate distancing requirements during the packaging and distribution process.
“The idea of these grab-and-go meals is to make sure that basic nutritional needs of our children are being met. At the same time, it makes children feel connected, safe, healthy and worry-free so they can completely focus on learning,” said Harkleroad, noting that a typical package is filled with a cereal bar, fruit juice, milk, a sandwich, a salad, fresh fruit, and healthy snacks.
Harkleroad said there are plans to add nutritional items in the Friday packages for weekend consumption, and to expand the grab-and-go meals program for parents and grandparents. That effort began last week with a donation of 575 loaves of Ezekiel bread through St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, also in Silver Spring – which Harkelroad said is the start of a partnership among local parishes that will help them collectively reach more people in need.
“We are proud of our faculty and staff, nutrition program staff, and Franciscan postulants and volunteer ministers who are working so hard on this program. Everyone is doing their best to be God’s hands. We are feeling God’s presence because we know he is with us and we are going to get through this,” said Harkleroad, a Secular Franciscan.
St. Mary’s Parish in North Jersey
Despite many ministries being put on hold during the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the food pantry and soup kitchen at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, have kept their doors open.
“One of our main concerns is how to be there for the people we serve in a safe and supportive way. Instead of having people come into the building, we now go outside and hand off the food,” said Gonzalo Torres, OFM, pastor of St. Mary’s, who noted that volunteers are also delivering trays of pasta and salad to emergency food programs in Jersey City.
Last month, Ken Weinheimer, director of St. Mary’s Food Pantry, posted a video on the parish Facebook page that describes how parishioners and others can help keep the ministry thriving in these difficult times.
“Our food supply chain has been significantly affected. Donations would be much appreciated and can be dropped off in the church parking lot,” says Weinheimer, noting that the pantry is now distributing pre-bagged groceries to minimize contact and practice social distancing.
The pantry distributed food on four occasions from March 21 through the end of the month, and is gearing up for a surge in recipients in April, as many have lost their jobs and wait for unemployment benefits to arrive.
John Aherne, OFM, who has been stationed at St. Mary’s since the summer of 2018 shortly after his ordination into the priesthood, said the health crisis is bringing out the best in people.
“We are all taking this day by day – our staff members, friars and parishioners. People involved in our many ministries are suggesting (and implementing) new ways to continue our work – just like St. Francis did,” said John. “We have 90 employees, including school staff. I am impressed with the passion and the ways that people are offering to help.”
He continued, “Since Eucharistic ministers are not allowed to bring Communion to hospitals, a nurse asked me how she could help – whether she could bring Communion hosts to patients when she goes to work.”
Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish
With New York City hit the hardest by the coronavirus than any other city in America, friars and volunteers at the Parish of Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great on West 96th Street are prepared to help New Yorkers through devastating economic hardship – especially hourly wage employees who were laid off from their jobs.
Food needs are going to climb sharply in the weeks ahead, which is why the parish is maintaining full operation of its emergency food pantry on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It has also stepped up efforts of its sandwich line on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The appropriate distancing is monitored at each of these ministry sites.
Unfortunately, the parish’s involvement in an international outreach ministry has become a casualty of the coronavirus, although everyone is hoping that it is a temporary delay, according to pastor Larry Ford, OFM. The upcoming sixth annual Helping Hands “packing event” has been rescheduled for Oct. 17.
Along with partners-in-ministry Rise Against Hunger and Catholic Relief Services Helping Hands – which provides immediate hunger relief and long-term solutions to poverty – parishioners and volunteers will package meals designated for shipment to 27 Catholic Relief centers that serve poor and vulnerable people in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa that suffers from cyclical drought and flooding, conditions that make it difficult to grow food for consumption and sale.
The Migrant Center at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street has been shut down since March 21. Julian Jagudilla, OFM, director of the Migrant Center, said that although direct contact with immigrants and migrants has been halted indefinitely because of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean that their issues are also put on hold.
“With most of New York City businesses closed, countless numbers of migrants have lost their jobs. We have had internal conversations about how we can support these struggling families,” explained Julian, who said he has spoken with David Convertino, OFM, a member of the Provincial Council and director of the Province Development Office, about ways HNP could assist migrants in need.
The Migrant Center, which was inspired by the Franciscan tradition of ministering to people who are alienated, displaced or persecuted, provides legal and educational resources to immigrants and migrants of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. It was established in 2013.
Editor’s note: The photos in this story were taken over time and therefore show developing virus-avoidance techniques as prescribed by the CDC. The HNP Communications Office welcomes updates about outreach programs being offered by ministries around the Province. Please email information to email@example.com.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province. Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “‘It’s heartbreaking’: Coronavirus puts Philly homeless services in survival mode” — March 19, 2020, Philadelphia Inquirer
- “As the coronavirus spreads, staving off hunger is a challenge in Kensington, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood” — March 25, 2020, Philadelphia Inquirer
- “How Do You Shelter in Place When You Don’t Have a Home?” — March 26, 2020, The New Yorker
- “NYC Migrant Center Celebrates Three-Year Anniversary” — Dec. 14, 2016, HNP Today