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Franciscan Ministry
St. Francis Breadline, Circa 1930, Serves Food, Hope and Dignity to the Homeless and Poor

A throng of men and women gathered one day during The Great Depression outside St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street in New York City, begging for food, clothing and money. At the front door of the friary, a Franciscan friar gave everyone a sandwich and five-cent coin. That simple act of compassion and generosity on the morning of Sept. 26, 1930 gave birth to what today is the iconic St. Francis Breadline, which has been feeding the homeless and poor every day since that historic moment more than nine decades ago.  

At 7 sharp every morning – weekdays, weekends, holidays, and through snowstorms, heatwaves and even hurricanes – the line zigzags along 31st Street with over 400 homeless, disabled, unemployed, a large number of women and children migrants, and those fallen on hard times – all of them poor and hungry. Franciscan friars and volunteers warmly greet their guests with compassion, dignity, respect, and a sandwich bag that contains a roll stuffed robustly with meat and cheese, a hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a can of juice, piece of fruit, and cup of coffee. Depending on the season, there are extras: cold cereal, oatmeal, granola bars, potato chips, handwarmers, and assorted hygiene products.

The line is orderly, no one pushes or cuts in front of another. Except on one brisk early October morning. Two young boys slip into the front of the line. They look out of place, shivering, wearing shorts and flip-flops. They only speak Spanish. A volunteer translates for a friar. The brothers arrived from Guatemala with their family. They’re living around the corner at a migrant shelter hotel. The youngsters are sent off with clothing and coats someone got from the Franciscan Migrant Center, and extra sandwich bags for their family.

The symphony of joyful laughter and friendly conversation at the Breadline is something you’d expect to hear at a neighborhood coffee shop or people waiting for the doors to open at a Broadway matinee, not a place where people are lining up for what is often their only meal of the day.

“The joyful atmosphere and warm greetings are just as important as the bags of food. We try to set the example that homeless people are human beings, not just a stigma that you step over in the subway or sidewalk,” says Patrick Regan, executive director. “It’s a great feeling to provide a hungry 

person with food, but it’s important to look them in the eye and greet them with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.”

Cynthia, a 50-something-year-old Breadline regular, sits in front of the church in her beach chair. She joins the line as it thins out, hoping to score a leftover PB&J sandwich, her favorite, with her sandwich bag. “I’m not a contagious disease. I wasn’t always homeless. I worked, wore make-up and nice clothes. The Breadline sees me as a person.” Jonah chimes in: “It’s like you’re invisible when you’re homeless. But the Breadline people ask how I’m feeling. They treat me like a person. They see me, and that means a lot.”

It’s the sentiment of most guests – like Mia, who escaped an abusive relationship because sleeping on the pavement, she says, isn’t as hard as her ex-partner’s punches to her face; Lydia, a single mother, and her three young children whose rent and utility costs leave little left to buy food; Justin, a disabled war veteran with PTSD; Jonathan, who lost his job because of substance abuse; Diego, who passed the Breadline every day on his way to work before losing his job during the pandemic; Sebastian, who turned to alcohol and gambling after his wife passed; Adam, who says the Breadline restored his dignity and keeps him from going hungry.

“Thanksgiving is approaching, but every day is Thanksgiving on the Breadline. We express our gratitude for the gifts God has given us by sharing them with our poor sisters and brothers,” says Richard McFeely, OFM, who served as Breadline friar liaison. “We are grateful to those who generously support the Breadline. 

The thousands of pounds of food that we provide every week comes 100% from monetary donations. But it’s more than food in each sandwich bag. Joy, hope and compassion is at the heart of what we offer to our guests, who are often forgotten and cast aside. The Breadline makes them feel welcomed and loved.”


Breadline guests who have housing, and others who are struggling with food insecurity, need help with supplemental food assistance. The Breadline Food Pantry welcomes guests once a week, offering a day’s worth of meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). They also have the option of visiting the Food Pantry once a month to receive grocery bags filled with the equivalent of four days of meals. Guests order from a menu and relax in a comfortable waiting area while the grocery bags are packed by volunteers, who then greet and engage them in conversation for a pleasant and dignified experience. 

Guests leave with eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and grains – and, on a rotating basis, beef, pork, chicken, and seafood – as well as extras like coffee, tea, pancake mix, candy, cookies, and cake mix. Part of the Food Pantry service is Breadline Delivers, a program mostly for elderly and disabled shut-ins who are contacted by a coordinator for their weekly grocery order – which is then delivered to their door by volunteers with the joyful spirit of St. Francis. 

“I’ve been to many pantries, but the Breadline pantry is number one. The volunteers are always so nice. They don’t look down at you because you’re in an unfortunate situation,” says Eric, a pantry guest. Ronnie and Jess, who struggle to put food on the table for their four children ever since losing their jobs during the pandemic, and Edgardo and Liliana, who escaped violence in El Salvador with their children, are among the hundreds who depend on the Breadline Food Pantry.


The Breadline’s Outreach Initiative helps thousands more struggling and poor families and individuals beyond the boundaries of 31st Street, providing 700 sandwich bags to a program in Harlem; 150 grocery bags for needy families of a Bronx parish; groceries to the food pantry at Create Inc., a program founded in Harlem by the late Ben Taylor, OFM; 120 sandwich bags to a program whose volunteers encounter the substance-addicted on the streets of the South Bronx; 500 sandwiches for the soup kitchen of an Upper West Side church; 90 sandwiches and pantry items for a program that feeds 125 families; and fresh produce for food pantries that help feed 400 families on the Lower West Side and 375 families in upper Manhattan.

“It’s a little shameful when you’re standing on a line for a free bag of groceries. But knowing the love and care that went into that bag, and being able to fill my refrigerator with food for my babies, makes me happy,” says La’Sondra, a Bronx mom of two.


There are other ways to feed people, according to Mr. Regan, who began working at the Breadline as a coordinator and whose passion to help others has led to new initiatives such as Breadline Franciscan 360, which started in February 2023 as a day-time drop-in for a cup of coffee and use of a computer station. The welcoming and dynamic environment has become a resource for guests. A case manager helps migrants with identification cards, job placement and other important information, and connects homeless with housing opportunities, social services, government agencies, and assistance from other not-for-profits.


Winston turned to alcohol and drugs when things weren’t going well in his life. “I lost everything – my job, house, car, and my family. This is all I have,” he says, holding a pair of small shopping bags with his life’s possessions. “I figured God didn’t care about me. Then I met the Franciscan friars and volunteers on the Breadline. They’re beautiful people.” It started raining after Winston departed, which prompted a friar to exclaim to Krystal, another regular, “What a gloomy day!” Krystal responded: “The Breadline is my sunshine. Nothing can spoil that – not even the rain.”

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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