PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Church of St. Mary here has long been known as a welcoming and inviting congregation. Two of its ministries have recently been noted for reaching out to two often forgotten groups, the poor and the gay community.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church Administrator Brice Leavins, OFM, director of The Bread and Blessings program at St. Francis Chapel, said the food outreach ministry is now in its fifth year. Since the downtown chapel closed last year, the lunch program has moved to Beneficent Church, closer to the city shelter and in a more convenient location to guests, he said.
From simple beginnings, the Franciscan lunch program now involves more than 75 volunteers, who make the lunches the night before. As one volunteer said, according to Brice, “We give out the bread and we receive the blessings.”
An average of 220 men and women are served every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from 6 to 7:30 a.m. in the courtyard of Beneficent Church, rain or shine. Guests receive coffee, hot chocolate, donuts and a bag lunch with two sandwiches and a snack. “We are somewhat like the U.S. mail,” smiled Brice. “Neither rain nor snow stops us.”
Students Come to Volunteer
“It takes a lot of effort and coordination but all the volunteers are happy to serve. Our list of volunteers has grown to include students from Providence College and Hendriken High School, as well as high school students from St. Luke’s Parish in Barrington. Three groups make sandwiches and three other groups serve.” Brice is especially enthusiastic about a new group of student volunteers from Providence College. They take a course in Christian Social Thought and Brice supervises their practicum on the line and meets with their advisers.
Much of the food is donated, including pastries from area businesses and bread from Pepperidge Farm and the Rhode Island Food Bank. Meat is purchased at cost, according to Brice, shown at left in the photo.
“Some of our guests choose to stay out all night because they are afraid of the shelters, where crime and theft are a regular occurrence. Some are also there because there is a shortage of beds.”
As the weather warms, Brice expects that more people will stay out on the streets. “With the recent rash of foreclosures, we are seeing more blue collar workers on the line, as well, also more women and children who are temporarily homeless.”
Financial Contributions Up
Financial support last year was great, added Stephen Lynch, OFM, a staff member of the Church of St. Mary. “Generous people from across the state see the good work, and donations increase. This helps offset the loss of some grants. The Franciscan street ministry receives a grant from the Diocese of Providence and one from the state every year,” he said.
Stephen recalls a poignant Christmas story. A generous family gave the food program $50 gift cards to local supermarkets. “A few days after we gave them out, a man handed Fr. Brice an envelope marked, ‘Thank You.’ Inside, was a note that said he was most grateful and had bought what he needed. But $50 was too much, so he was returning $20 to be used for someone else. Gratitude and generosity are contagious.”
Ministry to the Gay Community
The church’s ministry to the gay community is also contagious, recently attracting the attention of a reporter from the Providence Journal. “A reporter was writing about how Providence is a gay-friendly city,” said Frank Sevola, OFM, “and a member of St. Mary’s told him to talk to us.”
For the Jan. 20 article, “Gay Evolution,” the reporter, Mark Arsenault, spent a few Sundays at St. Mary, according to Frank, where he saw first-hand how the parish welcomes all.
Being welcoming has defined the Franciscan ministry in Providence for years, according to Frank.
“It goes back to our history. Friars have been in Providence for 50 years with the St. Francis Chapel, which is a good and welcoming place.” So when the friars took over St. Mary a few years ago, the same philosophy defined that parish. Many of the gay and lesbian parishioners who come to St. Mary have been turned away from other Catholic churches, Frank said.
“The gays and lesbians from St. Francis Chapel began coming to Sunday Mass at St. Mary. We make sure it’s a welcoming place for everyone — all kinds of people have found their way here. It’s a diverse community.”
The Importance of a Spiritual Home
Frank said the St. Mary community feels strongly that it is important that everyone have a spiritual home and a place to belong. “Sometimes,” he said, “gays and lesbians felt there was no place for them in the Church.”
But nothing could be farther from the truth, according to Frank. Unfortunately, he said, there is a lot of misunderstanding around gay and lesbian issues in the Church today. People, he said, often misconstrue the Church teachings around these issues. Instead, he said, the St. Mary community embraces the misconceptions, and discusses them. This, in turn, has helped people feel less alienated from the Church.
Frank was quoted on this issue in the Providence Journal, “Married, single, gays and lesbians, young and old — we all belong here… If we do not stand up to racism, sexism and homophobia, then we make ourselves outsiders.”
An Open Door to All
St. Mary also has an open-door policy for seekers from other churches who may not have felt welcomed elsewhere. “There are a number of churches in the area who may encounter gay people in the community. They will say to them, ‘Maybe you would be more comfortable at St. Mary,” said Frank.
This year, the congregation also plans to revitalize its gay and lesbian ministry with a few retreats and special gatherings. “They want to make that happen,” said Frank.
For now, St. Mary is proud of being among the few churches with ministries for all people. “St. Francis Chapel is the historic and flagship ministry — and we still have it. It is one of the best ministries to downtown Providence, where it serves the business community with daily Mass and confession,” said Frank.