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Franciscan Ministry
Friars and Daughters of Charity Help Those Left Behind in Santa Barbara

If there is a heaven on earth, Santa Barbara, Calif., might quality.

The mountains gently slope to the shores of the Pacific, and the weather largely avoids any bitter extremes. The appeal of the region is apparent in the large homes that permeate the area.

But not everyone is a millionaire. The Franciscans, who have been in Santa Barbara since 1786, know there’s another side of the city, evident in the estimated 2,000 homeless people who comprise a chunk of its 90,000 residents.

Serving up lunch are (from left) Brother Ricky-Novice of the Franciscans; Sr. Oanh Tran, D.C.; and Kitty Murphy Volunteer (photo by Joanne A. Calitri)

So the Franciscan friars from Old Mission Santa Barbara teamed with the Daughters of Charity in 2019 to form the Father Virgil Cordano Center, which offers the homeless a respite that goes beyond basic sheltering.

According to Fr. Joseph Schwab, OFM, President of Old Mission Santa Barbara, the center grew out of a common interest of the Franciscan Friars and the Daughters of Charity to fill the critical need for a day center and to be directly connected with the poor.

In the FVCC’s laundry room, (from left) Program Director Debbie McQuade, member Cameron Bielawski, and Assistant Program Director Ann Bentajado (photo by Joanne A Calitri)

“We found the greatest need was not an overnight shelter but it was a place to meet during the day,” he says.

At the Cordano Center, homeless people can find a spot every day after the night shelters have emptied out. They have a chance to do things that most people take for granted: receive email and postal mail, take in a lunch, and get their clothes washed. They are also able to talk over their problems and begin taking tentative steps out of homelessness.

Contained in a basic strip mall storefront, the Cordano Center, named for the late friar who was widely-known in the Santa Barbara community among rich and poor 

alike, is a lifesaver. “It made me feel like a human,” declares Ali, speaking in a promotional video to encourage support for the Center. “The center saved my life,” mentions Jesus, another visitor to the center.

Today the center provides hospitality for up to 70 people per day.

While the Cordano Center assists the homeless, it also offers an opportunity for Santa Barbara people who have residences to share in a ministry to the homeless.

Deborah McQuade is a Cordano Center volunteer who came there because she was inspired by Pope Francis’ call to reach out to those on the margins. 

“I really like the idea of a center, a place where people can come and be recognized by name and that they themselves see as something of a refuge,” she says. 

On the days she volunteers, McQuade greets her friends at the center and helps prepare lunch. They might ask what’s in the seafood pasta today. Others might be preparing to do a load of laundry.

Entrance to the Fr. Virgil Cordano Center

Daughter of Charity Sister Arthur Gordon, vice president for mission, says the Father Cordano Center helps bridge the gap between those who are homeless and the rest of Santa Barbara.

Volunteers like McQuade spread the word about the center, and that communication helps alleviate some of the tensions that have arisen with the presence of the homeless in the city.

“They see the homeless in a different way. They’ve met them one on one,” says Sister Arthur. Each has their story. The homeless in Santa Barbara run the gamut from military veterans, those who’ve lost jobs and cannot afford the high rents of the region, and those with alcohol and drug issues.

A priority is on moving the homeless beyond their current condition. A caseworker who serves the facility builds trust to encourage people to emerge from homelessness. It’s all part of a long process that the Cardona Center facilitates.

A priority is on moving the homeless beyond their current condition. A caseworker who serves the facility builds trust to encourage people to emerge from homelessness. It’s all part of a long process that the Cardona Center facilitates. 

Plans are to expand the day center to a new location, more accessible via public transit, on land donated by the Daughters of Charity. A fundraising campaign has already begun. Meanwhile, every day at the center is an education about why people in such a beautiful and prosperous region land in desperate straits. 

“Some of the people we serve are deeply wounded and desperate for affection and to be assured that they matter,” says Sister Arthur.

Photo courtesy of: www.frvirgilcordanocenter.org and www.daughtersofcharity.com

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