Our Namesake: St Clare of Assisi
“We learn from St. Clare both the importance of giving one’s life to Christ, as well as, the rewards of doing so.” (Deacon F. K. Bartels, Catholic Online, “St. Clare Shows Us How … )
St. Clare, 1194- 1253, was the daughter of the Count of Sasso-Rosso and his wife, of Italy. She founded the order of nuns now called, “Poor Clares.” Hearing St. Francis of Assisi preach, she had a calling to immitate St. Francis of Assisi and live a poor and humble life.
Clare’s theology of joyous proverty, in imitation of Jesus, is seen in her order’s rule of poverty as well as her letters to her sister, Agnes of Prague.
In the late 1970s, St. Peter’s Episcopal was a small, struggling inner city church in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. The once-middle-class area had succumbed to urban exodus and the neighborhood was no longer considered a good place to live. There were lots of smelly, dirty people around and no one really wanted to associate with them. Many were alcoholics and most were Vietnam veterans.
A few of these “undesirables” started stopping in at the church when someone was there, asking for money or food. The rector would talk to them and give them something to eat if he could. Soon there were people showing up every day and they were hungry.
One day the rector, Fr. George Castano, his secretary, and two parishioners were at the church when some street people stopped by asking for something to eat. After they left, Castano and the small group began talking about the ever-increasing problem of homelessness and hunger. They talked about the need to reach out to those on the street, and felt a program to feed them was needed. “How do we start?” one of the parishioners asked. And Fr. George gave a simple yet profound answer. He said “You make a sandwich.”
It Began with Sandwiches
The small community began making sandwiches. Around lunchtime on weekdays they gave sandwiches and chips to the homeless that came to the church. They even made sack lunches for their “customers” to take with them. It started out with 8-10 regular visitors. They would eat and Fr. George would just talk to them. He was very good at that. He even cut their hair when they asked.
Word spread in the street community and more and more people began showing up. Pretty soon, this small group was making more than 200 sandwiches a week. It was a big task for a small, struggling, broke church. Parishioners decided there were too many people for lunch every day, so they changed it to supper two nights a week.
As the program grew, so did complaints from people living in the neighborhood. The customers started gathering at 3 or 4, and the doors didn’t open until 5:30. The neighbors didn’t like that. But the church kept serving and finally the neighbors quit complaining.
Soon, music and prayers were added to the evening program. Imagine an accordion, a flute and a guitar. A Eucharist was added when Fr. George could be there. When they could get ingredients, soup was served. That was especially good on cold, Denver nights.
The numbers kept growing, and eventually all the parish could support was one night a week. One of the teen-age volunteers from the parish started calling the program “Feed the Bums” and soon even the guests were calling it FTB.
St. Peter’s becomes The Church of St. Peter & St. Mary
In 1977, St. Peter’s had a stroke of good luck. The nearby parish of St. Mary’s was torn apart in the furor over the ordination of women, and those parishioners loyal to the Episcopal Church were looking for a home. The two parishes merged, and the new Episcopal Church of St. Peter & St. Mary was born. The church more than doubled in size.
Many members of the new congregation joined in to support FTB financially and as volunteers. Then the food ministry took on a life of its own. The new helpers got food donated and a hot meal was served every week. The number of cooks increased. Eventually, Fr. George retired and was replaced by Fr. Larry Day, who was very good at public relations. He recruited volunteers from other churches as well.
Word of the food ministry spread around the diocese. More churches offered assistance and volunteers came from all around the area. FTB continued to grow, and rules had to be put in place. No food could be taken home, no weapons were allowed, and no drunks. Donations of hats, socks, gloves and coats came in and helped keep the street people warm in winter.
The St. Clare’s community expands
As the program grew, new guests began coming, including families with children and the working poor. Thankfully, the ministry was renamed St. Clare’s Supper in the 1990s, to better reflect the growing scope of the ministry and to better respect the dignity of all members of the community.
Today, the ministry is still going strong. Supper is still served every Tuesday night to anywhere between 90 and 175 people. Now called St. Clare’s Ministries, it is an independent non-profit organization, and is recognized as both a diocesan-sponsored institution and a Jubilee Ministry. More than 15 churches now provide some 150 volunteers to the ministry. One team shops and cooks in the afternoon, and two teams serve and clean up every Tuesday. The Eucharist before each meal typically draws 60 to 90 worshipers. And each week, the clothing room provides guests in need with a change of clothes, grooming supplies, coats and blankets All this because one wise priest said “Make a sandwich.”