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Serving a sea of commuters

NCR Staff
New York

Every weekday morning from crack of dawn on, thousands of people run, dawdle, drift or race up the escalators and stairs out of Penn Station, out into Manhattan, off to work. Add the New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority bus station crowds, and in a three-hour period hundreds of thousands of commuters, roughly 25 percent of them Catholic, converge on this part of New York City.

Coffee containers in one hand, bags and briefcases in the other, ignoring everything and everyone, the tidal wave of humanity funnels up West 32nd Street, with a smaller eddy along West 31st Street.

Either way, they pass an entrance to St. Francis of Assisi Church. Some on West 32nd Street turn sharp right into the church. Many just touch the head, heels or hands -- all burnished yellow from the gesture -- of the kneeling bronze statue of St. Francis in the little courtyard.

Others slip downstairs to attend one of the 13 daily liturgies -- the first at 6 a.m., the last at 5:30 p.m. -- or the popular 8:10 a.m. Liturgy of the Hours.

Where in the world (shrines apart) is there another church with no registered parishioners that has a pastor and 20 assistants, offers confessions 13 hours a day and utilizes 520-plus volunteers -- 250 for liturgical duties, 270 for social outreach? And has Br. Sebastian Tobin, a non-ordained friar, making sandals in the basement. This is a commuters’ church such as is possible only in New York.

¡Daily at 7 a.m., as it has since 1929, the St. Francis Breadline -- a $600,000-plus-a-year project Ñ welcomes the hungry and homeless for coffee and sandwiches.

Franciscans everywhere

This St. Francis complex is as much beehive as parish. There are Franciscans everywhere. The friars are fire department and union chaplains, physicians, psychotherapists, canon lawyers, teachers, treasurers, magazine editors and the all-essential fundraisers. The parish has adult education programs, seniors groups and self-help meetings, Filipino Fellowship, Masses in Korean, devotions, novenas, stations, lecture series and outings. Catholic to the core.

At Br. William Mann’s West 31st Street bookstore, even the thieves are Catholics. One elderly soul dropped an unpaid-for videocassette into her pocketbook. Mann asked her to replace it on the shelf. A hopeless case? The video was, “How to Make a Novena to St. Jude.”

Hey, this is New York. If people rub St. Francis’ bronze heels on West 32nd Street, someone knocked off most of the animals’ heads on the St. Francis sculpture on West 31st Street.

Headlines come easily to Franciscans with their residences for the mentally ill, their immigration services, their social outreach and Franciscan Br. Daniel Sulmasy, physician and doctor of philosophy.

Sulmasy, head of the Department of Ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital, last October told an American Medical Association science reporters conference that physicians sometimes have to lie to get insurance companies to pay for treatment for their patients.

Faced with frustrating barrages of phone calls, faxes, letters and bureaucratic barriers in their appeals to insurance companies, he said, doctors are often ready to give up -- or lie. Such lies, said ethicist Sulmasy, are akin to the answer “you’d give when harboring a refugee in the basement and the tyrant’s thugs come to the door asking if he’s there.”

Sulmasy’s ethical solution to U.S. medical fibs: health care reform.

Hungry Marxists

If physicians do what they have to in order to care for the needy, so does Franciscan Fr. Francis Kim. He controls 1,500 acres of farmland in China. He’s leased a farm there to help starving North Koreans who fled into China to survive. Through New York’s Korean community and elsewhere, he also raised more than $100,000 for rice and flour that he bought in China -- because the United States wouldn’t sell him commodities for hungry Marxists.

Back at West 31st Street, Kim, a convert (see accompanying story), ministers to the burgeoning Korean Catholic community in Koreatown (32nd and Broadway) just a block east of the church.

When tourist Massgoers scan the church bulletin’s pages, which offer opportunities from the daily Good Word telephone message (212-736-9233) to the St. Francis Creativity Group (helping the disadvantaged with their arts projects), they might ask, “What’s going on here?”

The answer is easy: business as usual.

St. Francis of Assisi Church, one of the city’s oldest, opened 156 years ago as a German parish. All that has changed in a century and a half is the nationality of the immigrants. German, Irish and Italian in the 19th century; in the 21st, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, Central and Eastern European.

This church attracts the earlier immigrants (whose families have dashed up Penn Central steps for two, three and four generations) to pray -- and they help out the new immigrants. The friars provide the essential spiritual and social services in between.

To the New York archdiocese, St. Francis is a parish. To the Franciscans, it’s a “service church,” a mission of the Manhattan-based Franciscan Holy Name Province that covers the U.S. East Coast.

“The parish is heir to the very pieties of the people who come here,” said the current provincial, Fr. John Felice. “Sacramentally and devotionally, you could say this is a very traditional Catholic haven. When I was first pastor [1973-82] there were a thousand people a day coming to confession.” (These days it’s about 1,200 a week.)

In that earlier era, the parish was a mecca for the heavily Irish-American-staffed Emigrant Savings Bank, now moved. Today, said Felice, “you find the Filipino community comes here largely because of the medical complex on the East Side. And the Korean business community is just around the corner.”

Homeless and mentally ill

Felice has his own favorite work. When he was pastor, he noticed an increasing number of homeless mentally ill in the daily breadline. New York state was emptying its mental institutions into the streets.

Felice and Franciscan Frs. John McVean and Thomas Walters decided that while they couldn’t help all estimated 40,000 homeless, they’d make a dent -- and maybe change the climate and regulations.

“The mentally ill are repeatedly shortchanged in our society,” Felice said.

In 1980 the three opened the first of three St. Francis Residences with money from their fundraising organization, St. Francis’ Friends of the Poor. Today three former single-resident occupancy hotels offer “permanent housing with on-site services, full-time nurse therapist and social worker, managerial and custodial staff; part-time psychiatrists.

“There are museum trips, cooking lessons, all done in the realization,” said Felice, “that we deal with a permanently disabled population.”

The residences have brought other tangible results. The Franciscans fought to change city and state laws and regulations. Now Franciscan Residences are regarded as a model -- not only locally, but also by visitors from other states and countries.

Another response to the needs of troubled people is tackled by the parish’s 18-month-old counseling center in a warren of rooms on West 32nd adjoining the church. Franciscan Fr. Brian Carroll, who directs the eight-psychotherapist unit, sets the scene: “This is a primarily word-of-mouth-known center that tends to attract people who’ve never had therapy before. It’s church-based. They’re comfortable.”

The center restricts its range, concentrating on clients having day-to-day relationship difficulties -- at work, in marriage, interpersonal problems. “Folks anxious, depressed -- 90 percent from outside Manhattan. We offer anonymity.”

Fees are based on a sliding scale. “We have stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, professional people who can easily afford the full fee,” he said. “That allows us to offer topnotch service to others who couldn’t otherwise come.” And that includes the little band of elderly neighborhood residents, depressed, isolated “and irritably knocking people’s knees with their canes in the supermarkets,” said Carroll. “After counseling, and getting them on a good anti-depressive, all of a sudden they’re back to taking care of themselves. Re-engaged in society.”

To the parish, it’s just one more important mission.

With the province’s 486 friars at a median age of 67-68, what about future friars to keep all the ministries going? Five candidates in the Bronx and eight novices in Wilmington, Del., are the answer (see accompanying story).

Managing the chaos

Who’s in charge at St. Francis? “The buck stops here,” says the man with the bell. The bell is from the days when St. Francis’ guardian and pastor, Fr. Ronald Stark, was dean at the Franciscans’ now-closed minor seminary. “There are still people who break out in a cold sweat when they hear it,” he said, impishly.

Stark is the humorous and self-deprecating presider over the chaos that threatens but never quite erupts as everyone goes about the parish’s, the community’s and their own ministries. He’s guardian to the friars, pastor to the floating community that counts as parishioners.

Think of the St. Francis’ faith community he presides over as one of those huge schools of fish on nature television -- swirling, too many to count and too small to individually identify at a glance. Unless they step forward and identify themselves -- as in responding to an appeal in the church bulletin seeking this type of volunteer or that. (Recent example: “Volunteer opportunity -- a shelter for single-parent families on the Upper East Side has received a donation of several computers. Someone is needed to set them up.”) Someone did.

That’s typical.

So is John McGuinness, who handles crises for the subway system, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Though he lives outside the city, after work he cradles AIDS babies or serves at St. Francis as a liturgical minister.

Praying for volunteers

Patricia Ballner doesn’t commute into New York by train; she comes in by bus. Still, walking cross-town takes her past St. Francis. The solo-practice Manhattan lawyer first popped into the church about three years ago. She started attending the 5:30 p.m. Mass.

Someone handed out envelopes one evening. She glanced at hers, decided she’d open it later and write a check for whatever it was.

“I stuffed it in my pocket,” she said. When she opened it, it was a sign-up card for volunteers. She stuffed it back in her pocket, “but it kept coming back. It was like a magnet. I’d keep opening it up and looking at it.” Finally she signed up. She’s delighted. The liturgical volunteers she meets range from high-ranking professionals, an apartment building superintendent and the unemployed.

These days Ballner is not only a eucharistic minister. She’s made quilts for the homeless and is currently organizing a library for the liturgical ministers’ spirituality study group she helped start.

It was in 1997 that Fr. Chris Keenan and others began seriously building a volunteer pool, now called St. Francis Cares. By last December, with volunteer numbers so high it was taking a computer program to keep track of them, Bonnie Wells joined the parish staff as director of volunteers.

She inherited 520 volunteers. She wants more -- tutors, mentors and teachers of English as a second language. After 15 years in volunteer management, said Wells, what drew her to St. Francis was “the excitement of being able, in a spiritual environment, to place volunteers.” With her organizational links, Wells knows New York’s needs and that people attracted to St. Francis are willing to give of themselves. The parish bulletin helps her keep pulling in new volunteers, she said.

It’s late afternoon in Manhattan. They’re heading home again, those 300,000 commuters. Some just rub St. Francis’ head or heels, some pop into the church, some stay for evening Mass or prayers, some just use the bathrooms in the parish office (the key is always available).

If they just grab a bulletin to read on the train or bus on the way home and respond, chances are it’s St. Francis himself -- praying in the little courtyard for ever more volunteers -- who will hook them and reel them in.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000