By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
When Barbara Anne Baer was a young 20-something, she was assistant display director for the Blum Store, the exclusive women’s apparel store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. She might be draping a $500 frock on the display dummy or arranging the folds in the background drapes, when outside the window there would be that poor man who was so often warming himself on the pavement grate. Sometimes she’d buy him a cup of coffee or a bagel. The expression wasn’t in vogue then, but over time she came to realize this was the face of Christ.
Fast forward to 1991 or so. She’s Barbara Anne Kirby now; her husband Kevin has a doctorate in mental health services and they are living in St. Agnes Parish, West Chester, with their sons Matthew and Andrew; daughter Ekaterina hasn’t joined the family yet. Kirby was a parish volunteer arranging the Christmas flowers. There was another homeless man, sitting in the pew, critiquing her work in a friendly way. Through conversations she discovered he was a homeless war vet with no apparent family; he had cancer and probably not too long to live. There it was, that face of Christ again.
She and Msgr. Thomas P. Craven, the pastor, did a little digging and found the homeless vet did indeed have a sister living in Hawaii who was thrilled to hear about her long-lost brother. She sent a plane ticket, they were reunited and his last days were spent in peace.
It was the beginning of the story, not the end.
Inspired by this man’s moving history, Msgr. Craven and Kirby instituted the St. Agnes Day Center, which provides services to the poor and homeless in seemingly prosperous West Chester. It’s continued under succeeding pastors Msgrs. Edward Deliman and Nelson Perez and expanded through the addition of the St. Agnes Nurses Center.
Interestingly, the needs change with the times. Back in 1991 when the Day Room opened it was serving mostly men, about 18 of them. Today, the Day Room serves about 80 people every day, and it is mostly women and children.
Most of those who come don’t live a great distance away. Once stately homes not far from the church might now shelter up to a dozen families, and yes, most of them are immigrants.
“These are the hidden poor,” Kirby said. “They are the people who are working at the dry cleaners, the maids in hotels. Those who are cutting lawns, those who are flipping burgers.”
“A lot of what we did and still do is listen,” explained Kirby, who is now director of outreach services for St. Agnes Parish and oversees the day-to-day operations. There are also the various classes, especially for the mothers and children, and a large focus is on health care.
“Health care has huge implications,” she said. “So long as there is a portion of the community without health care we don’t have a healthy community.”
Staff of the program often begin the day at Mass and there is a prayer service each morning – to which all are welcome – before breakfast is served. That is an important meal especially in summertime when the schools are not open to feed the children.
The whole program takes “hundred and hundreds of volunteers,” Kirby said.
Most volunteers are Catholic, but some are not. For all of them it is ministry, regardless of faith tradition.
Every member of her family has worked there.
“My husband sees the same kind of people in his work,” she said. “We do this as a family and we do it for God. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. This is my heart. I would not go back to working at an exclusive women’s dress store for anything. This is where Christ has called me, and this is where Christ has nourished my family.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.