Approaching Service from the Ground Floor

By Cathy Wegmann, NDA New England member, 1999-2001

Amidst the litter-filled vacant lots and boarded-up slum tenements of inner-city Philadelphia lies a well-known corner of Kensington Avenue. On weekday evenings and weekend afternoons a haphazard line of men, women, families, elderly, and handicapped people forms and may stretch around a block or two. They banter with one another as they inch toward the back door of the small corner building. Inside, a "maitre'd" escorts them to a table for four, complete with place settings.


The St. Francis Inn isn't your typical soup kitchen, but neither is the relationship of its staff with the guests. Beyond providing the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, the staff strives to remind their poor, homeless, and alienated visitors of their dignity. This comes not only through their standard practice of waiting on their guests (as opposed to sending them through a line), but also in their tradition of building lasting relationships.

Five NDA New England volunteers and their Site Director, Sr. Virginia Mulhern, ventured to the city of Brotherly Love during the April 2000 school vacation to share in the Franciscans’ ministry. Prior to their journey, the group participated in an orientation session with Tim Provencal (husband of NDA board member Maggie Fogarty), who served two years as a Franciscan volunteer at the Inn. Nevertheless, the group couldn't have known how four days in Philadelphia could help them recognize the importance of their own service in New England.

Colleen Vogt, who works with high school students in Hartford, CT, recognized, “It was a very powerful experience of service at a very different level from what we do day-to-day in education. As one of the Franciscan Inn staff said, their work is only a Band-Aid approach.” Sometimes referred to as the ground level of service, the Inn’s practice is to serve guests at whatever stage in life they happen to be. Yet they hope some of their guests will move to the next level, which includes many of the educational programs served by NDA volunteers.

Besides helping with the meals and food gathering/distribution at the Inn, the group also assisted with some of the other Franciscans’ ministries including St. Benedict’s thrift store and the women’s day center. Ohuwa Furblur, a computer teacher at Trust House in Hartford, CT, noted, “the highlight of my trip was the opportunity to visit the women’s day center. I was very moved (and still am) by how openly the ladies shared with Cathy and me during our short visit.”

Indeed, the inherent hospitality of the Inn is due in large part to the work of the Franciscan priests and brothers. Comparable to St. Julie Billiart’s charisma, the Franciscans’ presence is both well known and welcome in the Kensington neighborhood. Khiet Luong (Lowell, MA) shared that his experience was memorable because of three amazing people, among them Brother Xavier. “Ask Brother Xavier, ‘What time is it?’ and he will most likely respond, ‘It’s time for the Lord!’”

The foundation of the Inn’s ministry continues to be prayer. Throughout their stay, the NDA group gathered with the Franciscan community (most often in the priests’ cramped living room) to celebrate the beauty of a simple lifestyle. And although the New England group’s Philadelphia visit was brief, it reinforced the idea that service, at any level, is divine.

Notre Dame Mission Volunteers - Americorps
5405 Loch Raven Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21239
Phone:(410) 532-6864 - Fax: (410) 532-2418