PHILADELPHIA — It’s been going on for 40 years more or less. Men and women representing the Philadelphia Chapter, Knights of Columbus take time out to serve a special dinner at St. John’s Hospice around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It used to be on the actual holidays, but since the hospice is no longer open on those days, it’s usually the preceding Sunday. It’s just a nice tradition started by Bill Lennox, the late Sheriff of Philadelphia, who was both active in the Knights and a constant volunteer at St. John’s.
“Our First Degree is dedicated to charity,” said Bob Larkin, who coordinated the Knights’ visit of about 45 men and women on Nov. 20. “I’ve been coming from the beginning.”
St. John’s is easily the best known and most popular soup kitchen in the Philadelphia area.
“We get about 350 guys a day because it’s the best meal in the city,” said Gerard Huot, director of community relations for the hospice. “We serve homeless men, needy men. We invite them regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or whatever. We don’t ask questions; it’s not just about food, it’s about respect.”
“St. John’s Hospice is the Rolls Royce of homeless shelters and homeless services,” said Jason, who is homeless. “All my clothes and my shoes are from here. I’m here almost every day.”
Visiting the annual event for the first time was Deborah Wagner, Director of Homeless Services for the Archdiocese, including St. John’s Hospice, which supplies emergency shelter for 40 men as well as meals, clothing and services for all comers and an overnight coffee house program.
“This is a wonderful tradition; we depend on outside groups to bring this not only to the residents but to the streets. I think the men appreciate that someone other than staff really cares for them and is willing to go to all this effort for them.”
Because this was a special day, there was also a smattering of women in the line for the turkey, ham and all the fixings, and Knights from Mary, Queen of Angels Council based at St. Martha Parish in Northeast Philadelphia were also distributing coats and jackets to those who needed them. “Our parishioners really support this,” said Jerry Bowes, a past grand knight at Mary, Queen of the Angels.
Also circulating among the diners was Father Dennis Witalec of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in Philadelphia, who also ministers at St. John’s. The Knights’ concern for the homeless was something in which he was in total agreement.
“Going way back to before I entered the seminary, I always felt a longing to work with the homeless. I’m drawn to it,” he said.