By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – It will never make the Zagat Guide to Philadelphia Restaurants, but it’s been around for 45 years this September and it is one of the most frequented eateries in the city. Best of all, it’s free.

It’s also the mailing address for about 2,000 men, although on any given night less than 100 will use its facilities as sleeping quarters.
It is St. John’s Hospice at 12th and Race Streets, originally a ministry of St. John the Evangelist Parish, now under the direction of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services.

Because of its location near Philadelphia’s long-time “skid row,” St. John’s had a longstanding informal outreach through giving sandwiches and other items to needy people who came to the door.

During a vacation to his brother’s home in New Orleans, Father (later Msgr.) Anthony O’Neill became aware of the wonderful work done by the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd among homeless men.

Back in Philadelphia, with the permission of then-Archbishop John Krol, a property was purchased at 1221 Race St. and on Sept. 7, 1963 St. John’s Hospice opened, staffed by Brother John Hurley and two companions.

“Father John’s,” as it was called by the people of the streets, quickly became the premiere feeding location in Center City for down-and-out men, and they came daily by the hundreds. The hospice is not a large building, so only a fortunate few would find lodging for the night. One thing everyone found was compassion and nonjudgmental understanding.

There have been changes over the years. In 1986, St. John’s became part of Catholic Social Services. Paid professional staff was introduced. Gradually the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd withdrew, but their work and imprint remained.

In 1994, their adjacent living quarters were converted into the Good Shepherd Program, a residential facility for medically fragile homeless men. Most recently, a “Coffee House” was added. This is a drop-in facility, where men who are not emotionally ready for a shelter program can come and spend the night safely off the streets, utilizing whatever makeshift bedding they bring with them.

On any given day, St. John’s feeds between 320 and 420 men, estimates Kevin Barr, program director at St. John’s. Much of the food consists of casseroles prepared in parishes and organizations around the Archdiocese, and this personal outreach has traditionally been part of the St. John’s experience.

The numbers vary with the season of the year, the time of the month, and yes, the economy. Hard times mean more hunger.

There are 52 men under case management who occupy the bunks on the upper floors, and perhaps 20 more will be invited in every day for shower facilities and needed clothing. Each night 27 men occupy the Coffee House and another dozen or so are living in the Good Shepherd Program.

About that mailing address. People living on the street need a place to pick up mail, perhaps a small welfare or pension check, responses to job applications, or even letters from loved ones. It’s indicative of need that 2,000 men are using this free service, according to Barr.

Seven years with Catholic Social Services but only recently at the helm at St. John’s, Barr, a member of SS. Simon and Jude Parish in West Chester, sees God’s grace in action at the hospice. That grace is manifest not only through his dedicated staff and volunteers, but also through the men who use the hospice’s services.

“I feel like a different person when I’m here,” he said.

The work of the hospice reminds him of an unusual picture he saw during a visit to Assisi. It was of St. Francis kneeling before an image of the Holy Spirit as a dove, not in the sky, but on the ground.

“God’s Spirit is grounded in our vulnerability,” Barr said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.