By Nadia Maria Smith
CS&T Staff Writer
Anthony Willoughby, a recent Catholic convert and the Food Services manager at St. John’s Hospice in Philadelphia, says he loves his job because it gives him the opportunity to live out his Catholic faith every day.
Willoughby came to St. John’s Hospice in 2002 from a background in corporate restaurant management. Although taking a job with the homeless shelter meant a pay cut, he was prepared for the challenge and rewarding work that was ahead.
“There used to be a sister here who mentored me my first year, and she would tell me to see the face of Jesus in everyone that comes through these doors,” Willoughby said. “It’s so humbling. I think of the Bible verse, ‘what you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.'”
With that mindset he realizes that “a meal is not just a meal. A meal is dignity,” he said. “It’s hard to do anything on an empty stomach. For some of the guys this may be the most substantial meal of their day. Guys come through, we feed them and they really appreciate it. You directly affected someone.”
Everyday he serves the 40 residents, men who are being helped to get off the streets, providing them with breakfast, lunch and dinner. That also includes the 12 men in hospice care. In addition to that, he serves anywhere from 300 to 400 homeless men who come off the streets for a warm meal during the hospice’s day lunch program. At Christmas time those numbers can go up to 500 when they open their doors for Christmas dinner to men, women and children.
Willoughby also runs the evening coffeehouse at St. John’s where they provide coffee, cakes and sandwiches for about 30 men.
It requires a lot of planning to make all those meals, but Willoughby has it down to an art form he calls “organized chaos.”
He knows that he can’t do any of it alone. He relies on the generosity of people who donate food for the shelter and on the many volunteers and coworkers who are always ready to pitch in – from director Kevin Barr on down, Willoughby said.
When he isn’t planning, preparing, making or serving meals, he’s coordinating pick up of donations.
“We are very blessed with donations and when we have excess, we share with our sister sites,” he said. “I like to think of St. John’s as the Cadillac of shelters. We set the standard high. We have a tremendous, close-knit staff. Everybody does what it takes to get the job done.”
Before he entered the Church three years ago, Willoughby had not attended his Baptist church for over 20 years. Thanks to his wife he became interested in the Catholic Church.
“I went to St. Barnabas to see what this Mass thing was. I used to sit in the back pew, but now I sit in the first or second pew with my wife and daughter,” he said.
The pastor, Father John F. Babowitch, didn’t waste any time in putting him into service after he was received into the Church. He invited Willoughby to be part of the parish council. Then he became a lector and most recently an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. He also helps the Sisters, Servants of Immaculate Heart of Mary with R.C.I.A. at the parish.
“It is an incredible journey and I’ve learned so much,” Willoughby said. “Going to Mass keeps me really grounded in times when things get bumpy here, and it can get bumpy. I’m having the time of my life right now and that’s important.”
CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 965-4614.