St. Francis Inn in Kensington brings
volunteers and community together
to share meals, hope and love
By Msgr. Francis Carbine
Special to The CS&T
As you drive south on Kensington Avenue from Lehigh Avenue toward Girard
Avenue in Philadelphia, your eye will be surprised by a large, bright,
yellow mural of St. Francis of Assisi. The saint’s background is the
glorious color of a sunrise. Near him in large letters is his prayer
that begins, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.”
Facing the saint is a convincingly ferocious wolf. On the ground near
“brother wolf” you can see empty bottles, discarded needles and the
outline of a corpse. Sadly, in Kensington, death prowls in many forms.
This mural is the work of Brian Ames, a long-term volunteer at St.
Francis Inn, a place described as “an oasis of peace in a desert of
destruction.” Ames’ choice of vivid colors brings a spirit of hope to
this community filled with abandoned factories and stressed lives.
Father Michael Duffy, O.F.M., has served at the Inn since 1987. He is a
member of the team that coordinates programs that serve thousands of
guests who come to the Inn each month. He is joined in this work by
Franciscan priests, brothers and sisters, and other lay volunteers who
make the motto of the Inn, “Love … Lived in Service,” their own.
Volunteers in large numbers come from local Catholic high schools and
area Catholic universities. Others come from Illinois, Wisconsin, North
Carolina and Massachusetts.
Father Duffy describes the volunteers as “dedicated to human dignity and
also to hard work.” For example, Catherine Sullivan, a parishioner at
St. Christopher Parish, has been a volunteer since 1982. She assists
with the breakfast program and works three days each week from 7 a.m.
“Our guests are good people with low incomes. We serve a brown bag
breakfast with coffee or tea three days each week,” Sullivan said. “On
Wednesdays in the winter we serve hot oatmeal. Each month, we welcome an
average of 3,000 breakfast guests. We serve the Gospel by serving the
people – as Jesus did.”
Another veteran volunteer, Steve Collazo, sums up the reciprocity of
giving. “I am blessed to be able to help the homeless,” he said. “The
people are blessed to have St. Francis Inn.” Collazo describes his
follow volunteers as “giving from the heart.”
The Inn opened in December 1979 after three friars spent six months in
the area. One friar spent two weeks living on the streets. They
discovered trash-filled lots, people living in abandoned houses (called
“abandominiums”), men gathered around fire barrels on winter nights,
prostitutes and drug deals going on in the open. The friars concluded
that “people needed to see the Gospel lived on the streets of
When acquired by the Franciscans, the century-old building had been a
corner bar. Today, the door to the former bar is screened by a picture
of St. Francis. The shelf once used to display whiskey bottles now holds
a statue of the Blessed Mother.
On average, the Inn serves 12,000 guests each month – men, women and
children. In 2009, the Inn served 146,000 meals. From January to June
this year, 69,720 guests have been welcomed, seated at tables for four
and served by volunteers.
Volunteer Lee Vaccaro, a graduate of Gettysburg College with a degree in
history and a great cook, says that the Inn has a “family feel.”
When interviewed, he was preparing to bake apple crisp for 300 guests
expected for the evening meal – dessert to go along with the meal of
roast beef, macaroni salad and fruit.
The heart of the Inn and its ministries is the chapel located on the
second floor, only yards from the elevated trains that rumble past day
and night. Barbara Salapek, a member of the Franciscan team, says that
this chapel is marked by “Franciscan simplicity”- ivy, other green
plants and occasionally blooming white orchids.
“In our chapel,” she said, “we have daily Mass and Evening Prayer. Here
we can share our faith with one another, volunteers and guests. This
chapel is our crowning glory.”
Vaccaro is also a driver of the van that picks up donations of food from
stores, and on Sundays delivers groceries to families with children
Since 1979, the Inn has expanded its service areas and also its outreach
programs. The St. Benedict Thrift Shop at Fifth Street and Girard
Avenue provides clothing, while the nearby Urban Center offers referral
services for persons seeking housing and employment. In addition, the
Thea Bowman Center makes support groups available for women. A web site
has been set up (www.stfrancisinn.org) to provide information on those
Also adjacent to the Inn is a clinic conducted by members of the
Catholic Workers, and across the street is the Last Stop Club House that
helps addicted persons. “All these efforts point to God with different
fingers,” Father Duffy said.
Standing in the Inn garden after I completed the interviews for this
article, I watched as a guest from the Inn carried a loaf of bread
across Kensington Avenue under the El to share with another homeless
How beautiful the words of St. Francis: “For it is in giving that we receive.”
Msgr. Carbine is pastor emeritus of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bensalem and volunteers at St. Francis Inn.