Every day at around 11 a.m., a couple hundred people start streaming into the St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Some arrive in groups, others save seats for expected friends, and many come by themselves, but they won’t be alone. The kitchen staff, the servers and other guests reach out to everyone, and the round tables invite interaction.
“There’s more than food here,” said executive director Msgr. Joseph P. Kelly, who joins the guests at mealtimes. “This is the place to come for fellowship, and our guests know that everyone will be treated with dignity. Everyone who comes through our door is welcome. The Gospel clearly tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and to welcome each other as brothers and sisters. Probably nothing can more indicate that mercy than a community doing this for people they do not know.”
The kitchen, which additionally serves dinner three times a week, is open to everyone regardless of their financial needs. No questions are asked, and no one has to qualify for the free meals, because the kitchen is more than a place to eat. The needs might be for friendship or for the blessings of being the recipient of others’ love and concern.
The kitchen has served more than 2 million meals since it opened in 1978, in the long-closed Scranton Hotel. It moved to its present location in 1986.
The ministry was founded by Msgr. Constantine V. Siconolfi, then the director of social justice for the Diocese of Scranton, and director of the kitchen until he retired in 2009.
“One day after lunch, I left the chancery office and went for a walk and noticed 10 or 12 men sitting on benches with brown paper bags,” Msgr. Siconolfi said. “I didn’t know if there was food or something else in them, but I wondered if those guys were eating properly.”
It was around the time that a change in Pennsylvania laws allowed patients to sign themselves out of state hospitals, he added. That was part of a national trend that contributed to a growing population of homeless people with mental health or cognitive issues. The city was also suffering economically.
| Msgr. Siconolfi
“I wondered if they’re not eating enough, why not, and what was I going to do about it?” Msgr. Siconolfi said. “You can’t just sit around watching other people not eating.”
With approval from the late Bishop J. Carroll McCormick, he enlisted help from priests, ministers and rabbis at local churches and synagogues. He asked them, “How many people a week come knocking on your doors asking for handouts to get food?”
Msgr. Siconolfi checked with Catholic Social Services and through a survey identified that there was a need for someone to provide food for the poor, the hungry and anyone else who wanted to come.
“I contacted four or five people in the community and said that I wanted to develop a soup kitchen to represent the Church’s presence to the poor in a very direct, practical, charitable, symbolic work of the Church’s caring for the poor,” he said.
“They said, ‘That’s fine. We’ll support you.’”
They leased the available building, then considered whether they should buy food or beg for it.
“It was my decision, and whoever else joined me, that we would go out and beg for food to provide for the kitchen,” Msgr. Siconolfi said.
They found 20 supermarkets and purveyors who were each willing to donate 100 pounds of meat per month. People at local churches and synagogues that didn’t have their own food pantries agreed to have food drives twice a year, and assistance came from numerous community sources.
Schools collect canned goods and non-perishables, farmers donate produce, and others donate turkeys for holidays. Fundraisers generate interest and income, and a $100 donation in the kitchen’s new Host For A Day program supports a meal for one day.
The ministry grew by leaps and bounds and in 1986 was moved to a building Msgr. Siconolfi helped to design.
“We were $65,000 in debt when we opened in 1978, and when I retired in 2009, we were raising about $200,000 a year,” he said.
Msgr. Siconolfi attributed the kitchen’s success to the community’s generosity.
“I think the kitchen shows that the Church not only preaches that we must care for the poor, but that the Church does something about it in a proactive way,” Msgr. Siconolfi said. “The whole community has captured that concept.”
Now 82, he visits the kitchen periodically — and weekly during Lent.
“I put on an apron and cut up vegetables, and I help to serve the soup,” he said. “I get to see people that I’ve seen for 20 years, and they’re still coming around. God love them, they have so little in life and are always appreciative and so respectful.”
Volunteers give back
Some of the guests live alone in nearby senior housing. Twenty or 30 of them come every day for fellowship, Msgr. Kelly said. The poor come, too, and the homeless, and people who are suffering from mental illness, addictions or dual diagnoses.
“I always encourage the college kids to do some work beforehand and then sit down with our guests and get to know what the face of the poor really is,” he said.
The ministry also takes meals to St. Francis Commons next door, a residence that Catholic Social Services runs for homeless veterans. Three times a week, volunteers transport lunches to three church sites in farther areas of the diocese. All of the meals are prepared under the direction of chef/manager Thomas DiPietro.
The man had been coming to the kitchen regularly, but for a long time he didn’t have much to say.
“We don’t ask questions,” Msgr. Joseph P. Kelly said. “Then he started telling me that he lost his wife, and that his children lived in other parts of the country, and that things had spiraled out of control after his wife died. He lost his desire to even take care of himself, and he didn’t care if he lived or died. That’s when he began eating here.”
| Msgr. Kelly
He told the priest that he had considered suicide. “I don’t want you to think that I’m a bad person,” he said. “I had just given up.”
Coming to the kitchen where he saw smiles and met caring people helped him turn his life around. He reconnected with his children and spent this past Easter with his daughter.
“I realized that there’s a reason for me to live,” he told Msgr. Kelly. “The kitchen saved my life.”
Another time, when Msgr. Kelly asked a young couple who were new to the kitchen how they were doing, the woman started crying. They’d been saving money to buy the house they were renting, but everything fell apart when the husband lost his job. They were evicted and had just spent the last of their cash on a motel room.
“I connected them to Catholic Social Services, and they have a place to be tonight,” Msgr. Kelly said. “That’s just one of the stories, and that happened today. Call me tomorrow, and I’ll tell you another one.”
In addition to hot meals, guests can get free, donated clothing at an onsite shop that’s open after lunch twice a week. And sometimes guests are referred to diocesan or community services for housing, health care, counseling or other needs.
There are blessings for volunteers, too.
“We have to be careful how we schedule them because so many want to come that we have to make sure that they have something to do,” Msgr. Kelly said. “It’s hard for some organizations to get volunteers, but people absolutely love to give their time and their attention to the kitchen. People are attracted to this ministry because they see something very specific and a real and definite need. Feeding people is something that the community simply wants to do.”
A couple of men who were struggling with life changes in retirement sought counseling and were told to go volunteer at the kitchen. Six months later, they “found themselves” and were able to move on.
“Another thing that’s encouraging is that many people who may have come here for a time because they couldn’t make ends meet come back to volunteer,” Msgr. Kelly said.
Others who may never be able to give back in that way pitch in without being asked, like picking up trash around the building.
Msgr. Kelly has received many blessings, too.
“I was a pastor for 30 of my 50 years as a priest, and I have never received so many ‘God bless yous’ as I have since I’ve been involved with the kitchen,” he said. “This has been extremely rewarding for me not just as a priest but as a human being.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.