St. Francis Breadline Marks 80th Anniversary

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

NEW YORK — Eight decades after a friar named Gabriel, who was sometimes referred to as an angel, began serving food to the hungry in Midtown Manhattan, the friars and parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Church, as well as community members and New York City officials, commemorated the St. Francis Breadline, the longest continuously running breadline in the country.

A proclamation from New York’s mayor and a concert of music from the movies highlighted the celebration of the West 31st Street breadline.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized the 80th anniversary by proclaiming Sept. 30, 2010, as “St Francis Breadline Day.” “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I am delighted to help celebrate the breadline’s tremendous accomplishments over the past eight decades, and applaud everyone involved with the program and their ongoing dedication to serving those in need.”

“As our administration works to aid underserved residents and to keep our city moving forward during a national economic crisis, we’re grateful to have a partner in the St. Francis Breadline, which provides invaluable support and sustenance to New Yorkers in need every day,” said the mayor’s proclamation, which was framed and given to the friars.

Invaluable Ministry
That Thursday morning, the church community marked the launch of the 80th anniversary celebration by providing “extra goodies in the food bags,” that are distributed to guests according to Michael Carnevale, OFM, director of the breadline since 2006. “We gave our guests special sandwiches and pastries.”

Each day, promptly at 7 a.m., volunteers — both friars and partners-in-ministry — give a sandwich and cup of coffee to each guest on the breadline, which often extends far down the sidewalk. “Our volunteers receive a small stipend from the church,” Michael said. More than 300 people line up along the sidewalk; many are regulars, he added.

“Most of the people are here for a long stay,” he said. “They’re street people. Many have been our guests for years.”

The food is purchased from HeroBoys on Ninth Avenue, which has supplied sandwiches for 40 years to the ministry that operates seven days a week.

An annual budget of roughly $900,000 is required to fund the food ministry. It is gathered from donations — both individuals and groups — through the sale of greeting cards, collection boxes in the church, and other programs.

“We thank God for people who have taken seriously the message of St. Francis and St. Anthony, because their donations make this ministry possible,” said Jerome Massimino, OFM, pastor, who adds, “alongside the sacrament of reconciliation, the breadline is the most beloved ministry of St. Francis of Assisi Church.”

“Our donations come from all over,” Michael said. “Visitors who have passed the church and liked what we’re doing give to the breadline. They’re both Catholics and non-Catholics from the United States and foreign countries. In the past, the garment and fur industries were busy in this neighborhood and many workers would come to this church and they’d donate to the ministry.”

Musical Celebration 
On Saturday of the parish celebration of St. Francis, roughly 200 people attended the church’s second annual Viva Francesco! concert to benefit the breadline. The Oct. 2 concert, with its theme of “Francis goes to Hollywood,” took “attendees on a journey through some of Hollywood’s best music from the movies,” said Meredith Augustin, the parish’s music director. The evening featured performances by “phenomenally talented” singers and instrumentalists from the music ministry, she said.

“Because of the success we had last year, and the constant inquiry as to when we would hold another concert, we decided to make the benefit concert an integral part of our Francis Week celebration,” she said. “It is a great way to spread the message of the breadline, since that is where the proceeds go.”

“It was also a nice social event for our large parish community,” said Timothy Shreenan, OFM, director of liturgy and communications. Many friars from both New York and other areas attended the concert, said Augustin.

The music was varied and the songs numerous, she added.

“Everyone’s favorite seemed to be the Disney Spectacular — remembering songs from Mary Poppins, Pinocchio,Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Lion King, to name a few,” Augustin said. “Other songs that we included were ‘New York, New York,’ a beautiful duet ‘Up Where We Belong’ from An Officer and a Gentleman, and a great medley of tunes from Judy Garland and her movies, including ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

A reception in San Damiano Hall, in the first-floor level of St. Francis Friary, followed the concert. Photos of the breadline, taken by Octavio Duran, OFM, were displayed on the walls for guests to view as they enjoyed refreshments served on a Viennese table.

BREADLINErLong History
St. Francis Breadline was founded in September 1930, by Gabriel Mehler, OFM, a year after the stock market crash.

Gabriel, the porter, established the breadline after experiencing the growing number of men and women begging for food, clothing or money at the monastery door. “When Brother Gabriel opened the door of the monastery on Sept. 26, 1930, he little realized that he was beginning a form of organized charity for which St. Francis of Assisi Church would soon become internationally famous,” according to The Saint Francis Breadline: 80 Years of Franciscan Compassion, a 12-page booklet published last month by St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Over the years, various friars continued the ministry Gabriel founded and directed until his death in 1940 including Albert Aldrich, OFM, and Ronald Stark, OFM. A timeline of notable breadline events can be found on the website of Mychal’s Message, the service organization based in Pennsylvania that donates clothing and other items to the breadline.

On holidays including Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, breadline guests are given special gifts to add warmth to their holidays.

Scenes of the breadline — both recent and long-ago (including the Associated Press photo that has appeared in newspapers through the years) — appear in The St. Francis of Assisi Breadline: 80 Years of Franciscan Compassion, which describes the first 15 years of the breadline. The booklet, a reprint of an article that appeared in a 1943 issue of the Provincial Annals, is available at St. Francis Parish House, 135 West 31st St.

“It is our responsibility as Franciscans to respond to God’s poor and needy,” said Michael, adding that the friars operate food pantries and other programs for the needy in many of their parishes around the East Coast.

As Mayor Bloomberg said, “the breadline’s efforts embody the spirit of compassion and community service that characterize our city and lie at the heart of the Franciscan tradition — and which are not only improving the quality of life for homeless and hungry residents, but also ensuring a better future for us all.”

— Jocelyn Thomas, director of Communications for Holy Name Province, reminds readers that news about the Province can be found on its Facebook page, Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province.