By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – It all began five years ago when Capuchin Franciscan Father Frank Yacobi, the then-new pastor of Center City’s venerable St. John the Evangelist, realized his parish campus included a relatively large unused building simply going to waste.

Now three powerhouses in Philadelphia’s war on poverty – Project H.O.M.E., (Housing Opportunities, Medical Care, Education), Bethesda Project and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have combined to make St. John the Evangelist House possible.

Groundbreaking for the new eight-story building was held July 8 in the presence of Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, other civic officials and representatives of the social agencies.

“St. John the Evangelist Parish has a rich history and a tradition of helping the homeless,” Cardinal Rigali commented. “Dating back to the parish’s founding of St. John’s Hospice, which is now operated by Catholic Social Services, one sees a genuine compassion for the less fortunate among us. St. John the Evangelist House will build on that tradition.”

The vacant building Father Yacobi was trying to find a use for is located on Clover Street, originally built in the 1880s by a forerunner of the Wilbur Chocolate Co. It was acquired by the Archdiocese for the parish in 1950 and was first used for adult night school classes and afterwards as the offices for the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).

Through a parish council member, Father Yacobi contacted Angelo Sgro, executive director of Bethesda Project, an organization that works with homeless men. Sgro recalls he was enthusiastic and thought the two-story building could be converted into transitional housing. He suggested Mark Schwartz, a local expert on housing, be consulted. Schwartz too thought affordable housing in such a prime Center City site was a wonderful idea, but why use the old building? Better to tear it down and build a higher one.

Sgro knew his organization did not have the expertise for such a major project in itself, so he contacted Project H.O.M.E., which does.

An initial study was conducted through a $25,000 grant from London-based Oak Foundation (which later contributed toward construction costs). According to the study, the footprint of the existing building wasn’t large enough for the planned facility. Could the adjoining building, also owned by the parish, be razed too?

This building, originally a parish school erected in 1899, was now used as a parish center and for office space. The solution was to transfer these functions temporarily to the parish rectory.

As it stands, the project, which is expected to be completed in late 2010, will result in an eight-floor, 63,200-square-foot building. The first floor will mostly be taken up by the parish center for St. John’s Parish; the next two floors will house clients of Bethesda Project; and the upper five floors will house clients of Project H.O.M.E.

In all, 79 men and women will live in the facility in single occupancy rooms or efficiency apartments, with all of the necessary community rooms, kitchens and other facilities on site.

“We are providing housing for former homeless men and women right in the heart of the city,” Sgro said. “I’m excited the two of us got together with the Archdiocese … and the project has been well received by all of the neighbors we contacted.”

“This is a win for everybody,” said Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion, executive director of Project H.O.M.E.

“In value and in works it is the mission of the Church to stand in solidarity with those who are poor and homeless. Project H.O.M.E., Bethesda Project, the Archdiocese, the parish and the Franciscans, especially Father Frank, worked through the many challenges. We are enormously grateful to all,” she said.

As an added bonus Sister Mary noted the new building will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified because of its environmentally friendly construction, a first for that particular area of the city.

The project is an excellent example of adaptable reuse of archdiocesan property, noted John Wagner, director of project development for the archdiocesan secretariat for Catholic Human Services.

“Two outstanding leaders in the field of homelessness in our city got together,” Wagner said. “It was people like Sister Mary, Joan Dawson McConnon (co-founder of Project H.O.M.E.), Angelo Sgro and Mark Schwartz who did it. Bishop Joseph Cistone was behind it 100 percent and Father Frank Yacobi is the salt of the earth.”

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