Quick, how do you serve 350 people in two hours in a dining hall that seats only 48 at a time?
If you were a restaurant consultant looking to save time and build profits, you’d probably set up a cafeteria-style line service.
But if you were a Franciscan friar, living in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, you’d have a maître d’ to greet and seat and a full wait staff to serve. Fr. Michael Duffy, OFM, co-director of the St. Francis Inn, laughs that their system for feeding the hungry is “less efficient, more Franciscan.”
St. Francis Inn in Kensington, an area northeast of Philadelphia, has been a restaurant for the poor for nearly 35 years. The Inn operates in what was once a neighborhood bar, a long narrow building with a corner entrance. The Inn still functions as a local gathering place, but all other vestiges of its former use are gone: outside, a hand-painted sign featuring the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine now graces the old bricks, and inside, a statue of the Blessed Mother sits on a shelf that once housed whiskey and gin.
Starting at 4:30 every afternoon, 365 days a year, hungry people form a line outside. Eighty percent are regulars: single mothers, senior citizens on fixed incomes, alcoholics, people who are mentally ill, families who in Fr. Duffy’s words are “just plain poor,” and drug addicts—some from the suburbs, and once one who had played professional football. Guests are handed a ticket with a number and are served in shifts. Inside, they’re seated at tables of four, with real plates and silverware; on holidays and special occasions, the tables are decorated with centerpieces and placemats made by local schoolchildren.
Unlike the typical soup kitchen, where guests are hurried along a cafeteria line, the set-up at St. Francis Inn allows staff time to interact with guests, to play with children, to check in on the needs of the elderly. Using a maître d’ and wait staff, explains 74-year old Fr. Duffy, preserves the human dignity of those who find the “American Dream” out of reach. And the four-top tables encourage fellowship among the guests themselves. That fellowship explains why there’s little waste of food at St. Francis Inn: if a guest doesn’t like an item on the full plate they’re served, “they’re very good about sharing,” Fr. Duffy says.
“What Philadelphia does not need is
another church where someone talks about
the Gospel. They need to see the Gospel.”
The permanent staff is made up of five Franciscan friars, two Franciscan sisters, and five lay people. A steady stream of local and long-distance volunteers from businesses, high schools, and colleges assist. Some volunteers, like the college graduates from the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, stay for a year. Staff and volunteers live simply among the people they serve every day. As Fr. Duffy explains in a video made by Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, “One of our guidelines says we don't seek to serve the poor, we seek to be the poor, and serve our brothers and sisters.”
That theology has been at the heart of the Inn since it was founded by three Franciscan brothers from New York in 1979. The Franciscans wanted to establish a presence in Philadelphia, and asked for permission to move there from New York City with no particular idea of what they would do when they arrived.
In an effort to discern their mission, one of the brothers lived on the streets of Kensington for two weeks. He learned that the common need among the poor was decent food. What Philadelphia does not need, he told his fellow Franciscans, is another church where someone talks about the gospel. They need to see the gospel. And so the order bought a corner bar in Kensington for a couple thousand dollars and opened in December with just five guests.
Those numbers have grown exponentially. These days the Inn is serving between 350-450 guests a day. Three days a week they also offer a take-out breakfast of Danish, coffee, and cereal at the back door for 250 people. Between breakfast and dinner, the Inn served 141,483 meals last year alone.
Private donors keep the Inn operating. No funds come from the state or archdiocese, and all food comes from local groceries, meat packers, and bakeries. The menu varies, depending on what’s in the pantry, but always includes a meat, vegetable, starch, and dessert. True to their Franciscan roots, the staff never turns anyone away. If food runs out, says Fr. Duffy, “We’ll slap together some peanut butter and jelly.”
At this intersection of food and faith, even a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich serves a greater purpose. “The crowning glory of our work,” says Fr. Duffy, “is for people to feel loved by God.” Because the Franciscans aren’t trying to convert their guests, and because no one is required to listen to a homily or go to Mass at the Inn’s chapel in order to be fed, success in feeding the spiritual needs of the Inn’s guests can only be measured by God, says Father Duffy. “We just love others and let God take care of the rest,” he said.