NEW YORK — For many struggling with mental illness, it could likely be a blue Christmas.
These people often feel lonely and isolated, cut off from family and friends, and overcome with depression at a time when everyone seems happy.
But that’s not the case for the 270 residents of the three St. Francis Residences in Manhattan, supportive housing for the homeless with chronic mental illness. For them, it’s not a blue Christmas at all, but rather, a festive and colorful one.
Run by St. Francis Friends of the Poor, the Residences have many holiday activities planned throughout December, including tree-trimming parties, festive meals and sight-seeing trips.
“One of the great things about this place,” said Bill Long, who is spending his postulant year ministering at the Residences, “is that the residents support each other and have a real sense of community here. The staff does a great job of making this their home.”
John Felice, OFM, who runs the Residences with Thomas Walters, OFM, pictured center in photo, and John McVean, OFM, agrees.
A Place to Call Home
“This is their home, we are their family,” he said. “We have parties from now to Christmas. If they have an issue, we help them over it. That’s what a family does.”
When HNP Today caught up with John Felice earlier this month, he was sorting through the residents’ Christmas presents – brand new coats, purchased by St. Francis Friends, for each person.
And while John said the holidays bring up many issues for a lot of people, the residents are handling the season well. “Everyone has issues at the holiday season. The people here have no more issues than anyone else.”
“We’re created a whole different world for them here, a family.”
During his five months ministering here, Bill has been most impressed by the stability of the residents. “Even though they’re schizophrenic, you don’t see great swings of depression here,” he said.
John added: “They have a terrible disease and have been dealt an awful hand in life. We’ve tried to create a home for them, within the confines of their illnesses.” And from the looks of the Residences’ holiday social calendar, the St. Francis Friends of the Poor have succeeded.
Bill, who was affiliated to the Province in August, accompanies residents to bowling, art classes, even a trip to Rockefeller Center to see the world-famous Christmas tree. “It’s my role to be a friend and companion.”
Working three days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Bill attends meetings with staff to discuss specific circumstances of individual residents, as well as escort them to doctor and dentist appointments.
“Experiencing this ministry makes me extremely grateful for what I have, and also makes me reflect on the simplicity and humility of Christ that is never more evident that with those people I see everyday,” said Bill. “It’s a wonderful experience being around them. It makes me humble and makes me realize that I have to become one with them, just as Christ did.”
Bill is appreciative that he was encouraged to join this ministry, as he transitions from being a diocesan priest to a Franciscan friar.
Putting Faith into Action
He also finds it easy to put his faith in action at the Residences. “The topic of God rarely comes up,” he said. “We have people here of all faiths and backgrounds. We show our faith by words and actions. We don’t try to push our faith on others.”
Bill enjoyed spending part of the Advent season with the residents, and was looking forward to going to Arizona on Dec. 12, to stay at the Franciscan Retreat House and to help at the parish.
He had this final thought on the residents: “Many of their families are not around or they have been rejected by their families and naturally feel isolated and alone. Christmas-time exacerbates that feeling. We try to help them feel involved in the Residences – by decorating, partying and having Christmas dinner – to realize that they have a community here.”
— Wendy Healy, a free-lance writer based in Danbury, Conn., is an occasional contributor to HNP Today.