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Franciscan Ministry:
St. Francis Inn Has a Seat at the Table for Everyone

Not even the light drizzle could dampen the spirits of “Sharon” and her five children as they waited for St. Francis Inn to open for dinner. The single mother brings them to the Franciscan soup kitchen in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood three to four times a week for a warm, nourishing meal. The friars make sure my babies don’t go to bed hungry, she says.

To pass the time on this late Tuesday afternoon, as the line of dinner guests began to zig-zag along Kensington Ave., Sharon’s children try to guess what the Inn is serving – or at least what they are hoping for. Cheeseburgers and pizza! Some of the other guests – most homeless, all poor – are amused by the children’s banter. The gate swings open and four of the youngsters race toward the friar standing in the center of the courtyard. Sharon tries to keep up, but she’s pushing a stroller with her developmentally disabled child, wide-eyed and grinning after spotting James La Grutta, OFM, handing out sidewalk chalk.

Sharon and her family, and over 200 other guests – homeless, poor, substance-addicted, jobless, others just fallen on hard times – file into St. Francis Inn, greeted by the inviting aroma of baked chicken and roasted potatoes. The children, of course, are asking about dessert as volunteers and friars emerge from the kitchen, balancing plates of food and serving guests already seated.

Remarkably, there’s no chaos, no shoving. Because there is always a seat at the table for everyone. No questions asked. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or where you’re going. If you’re hungry, the team of friars, Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and volunteers will feed you.

It has been this way at the Inn since 1979, when three Franciscan friars opened its doors in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. The friars serve another kind of sustenance: a heaping helping of hope and solidarity, dignity and respect, and welcome and hospitality – with the same gentle, compassionate care that the Inn’s namesake provided over 800 years ago to the poor and lepers in the streets of Assisi, and whose feast day friars across the country are celebrating today.

The restaurant-style soup kitchen serves 350 plates of food daily, relying on thousands of pounds of food generously donated every week from ACME markets, BJ’s, Giordano’s Meat Purveyors, Tastykake, Stock’s and Fritz’s bakeries, and other retail, wholesale and family-owned business, a local foodbank, and pro-sports teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Flyers.

One time, the Inn posted on social media a photo of empty space where bottled drinks were normally stored. An hour later, a car rolled up with 11 cases of water; two days later, the Inn had 600 donated cases of water and fruit juices – just one example of the overwhelming support of the grassroots variety. Franciscan-hearted parishioners of local churches, students of area schools (one school makes hundreds of sandwiches), families and individuals donate food and clothing. Monetary donations pay for shortfalls.

“We have a philosophy at the Inn – ‘God will provide.’ This generosity is nothing short of amazing. Never underestimate love for the poor,” says Fred Dilger, OFM, a member of the Inn’s team for 18 years.

“It’s a ministry of presence, sitting with guests at dinner and listening to their stories. They are living horrific human conditions, so sometimes people aren’t always pleasant; they rant and complain. It’s humbling in a sense because no matter what we do to help them, some may never change their ways. All we can do is give them back a little dignity; love them and pray for them, and care for them as best we can,” said Angel Vazquez, OFM, a trained barber who sets up his “barbershop” every Thursday and provides free haircuts to guests.

“I sometimes want to weep just thinking about what people here are going through. I feel like no matter what I do, it can never be enough to help them. But I realize that having the ability to invite them for a hot meal, and giving them a chance to be in a safe place for a while, is a blessing. We are living the Gospel as St. Francis did when he cared for the poor,” said James, who noted that his experience at the Inn when he was a college student had a significant impact on his Franciscan discernment.

St. Francis Inn provides meals 365 days a year, and additionally breakfast as a grab-and-go meal that guests enjoy in the outdoor garden. A pantry distributes food to the elderly and families in need, and some of the Inn’s seasonal events include Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner, an Easter egg hunt, and a Halloween party. Marie’s Closet offers guests a dignified shopping experience with the opportunity of selecting free clothes, towels and linens, and blankets and coats during winter months. The Job Center offers free online search tools and resume assistance, while the Thea Bowman Center helps guests apply for social services.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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