Two Longtime Employees of NYC’s St. Francis Friends of the Poor Honored

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

St. Francis Friends of the Poor logo (courtesy of the SFFP website)

NEW YORK – Nearly 75 years of service were recognized this summer when the three friars who founded St. Francis Friends of the Poor honored two dedicated employees. John Felice, OFM, John McVean, OFM, and Thomas Walters, OFM, presented Thomas Cabrera and Jose Cruz with the HNP Francis Medal on July 24, a week before the retirement dates of the two longtime staff members.

For 40 and 34 years respectively, Cabrera and Cruz worked at the St. Francis Residences – housing established in New York City by the three friars for homeless people living with mental illness.

They were recognized at a Friday afternoon retirement party at SFFP Residence III on Eighth Avenue with approximately 25 staff members in attendance, according to Christina Byrne, executive director of St. Francis Friends of the Poor.

“It was a great honor to have the three founding friars present the medals to these men who they’ve worked alongside from the very beginning,” she said. “Had it not been for the restrictions imposed by social distancing, there would have been many more staff members and tenants participating in the medal presentation and retirement celebration.”

Cabrera and Cruz spent their careers maintaining the three buildings located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“They were very loyal employees,” said John McVean. “Their longevity in itself was something to recognize but also, they were very sensitive to our population.”

The SFFP honorees were appreciative of the recognition.

(l-r) John Felice, Tom Cabrera, John McVean, Jose Cruz, and Tom Walters at the SFFP office. (Photo courtesy of Ashlan Lippert)

“It was a surprise to us,” said Cabrera, who served as maintenance manager of the three residences. “This was the only job that I had since moving to the U.S. from Mexico. I enjoyed the challenges it gave me.”

Known to the founding friars because of his maintenance work at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street, Cabrera has been part of the St. Francis Friends of the Poor family from the time the friars opened the first St. Francis Residence in 1980, when he was hired to do the same type of work he was doing on 31st Street.

“A quick and enthusiastic learner, Tommy learned to maintain and improve the various mechanical systems in a 100-year-old building,” said John Felice. “As St. Francis Friends of the Poor expanded, so did Tommy’s role.”

Cabrera hired and trained the maintenance managers at the other two St. Francis Residences and, according to John, “knew all three buildings like the back of his hand. What makes Tommy even more special is the way he always showed compassion and respect for members of the at-risk population who live at the residences.”

He said for four decades, Tommy “has shown nothing but dedication – always making himself available, regardless of the time of day or weather conditions, to ensure the building was functioning as needed to keep the tenants healthy, safe and comfortable.”

As he and Cruz approached their retirement, SFFP wanted to honor the men for their combined 74 years of service. Upon Cabrera’s July 31 retirement, St. Francis Friends of the Poor thanked him for his 40 years of service to the mission.

When St. Francis Residence II was opened in 1986, Cruz was hired to maintain the newly renovated building.

John Felice reads the official commendation to Tom, John and Jose at this summer’s presentation of the Francis Medal. (Photo courtesy of Ashlan Lippert)

“In his quiet, unassuming way, there seemed to be no problem he could not resolve in his 34-year tenure,” said John Felice. “Jose’s woodworking skills are exceptional and there are many pieces of furniture and other furnishings that will remind us for many years to come of his service to the residents.”

He added, “Furthermore, his willingness to work nights and weekends to solve building crises was always outstanding. Jose’s dedication to the work and respect for the tenants has been unwavering.”

Since the early 1980s, St. Francis Friends of the Poor has provided housing at three residences, sometimes referred to as hotels, for financially challenged men and women suffering from mental illness. Today, these St. Francis Residences provide housing and supportive services for nearly 300 men and women.

St. Francis Friends of the Poor was established in 1980 by the trio of friars to provide housing to people living with mental illness who were experiencing homelessness. It began as one residence on East 24th Street and gradually expanded to three sites. The history of SFFP can be found on the ministry’s website.

In addition to housing, the residences offer supportive services including advocacy, medication management, medical and psychiatric treatment, and, when available, clothing suitable for the season. The residences also provide weekday breakfasts and lunches as well as socialization opportunities, said Byrne.

In 2016, John Felice and John McVean – who were honored in October of that year by The Supportive Housing Network of New York – stepped down as directors of St. Francis Residences. Until March, when the pandemic hit the Northeast, they visited the residences once a week. Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM, served in the director role from summer 2016 until January of this year when Byrne was hired.

The new director says she is inspired by the mission and culture of St. Francis Friends of the Poor.

“I am drawn to SFFP’s deep sense of community, the hard work and dedication of the staff, the strength and resilience of the tenants and the founding friars’ selfless devotion to ensuring the dignity and worth of the city’s most vulnerable population,” said Byrne. “I am honored to be part of this amazing organization and look forward to working with the community to build on its 40 years of success, ensuring that tenants live their best lives.”

The Francis Medal was established in 1998 by then-Provincial Minister John Felice, to acknowledge those who exemplify the values and ideals of St. Francis of Assisi in their personal and professional lives.

    — Jocelyn Thomas  is director of communications for Holy Name Province.