Two archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) ministries threw an island-themed party for at-risk women last week, and crowned them all “queen for a day.”

Some 20 clients served by Women of Hope and Mercy Hospice, both located in downtown Philadelphia, donned Hawaiian leis for a July 9 luau luncheon that included hot sandwiches, cool side dishes and decadent desserts.


String lights, colorful spinners and even a few pink flamingo cutouts gave the outdoor gathering, which took place in Women of Hope’s spacious courtyard, a playful, relaxed feel.

And that was the whole point, said Renee Hudson-Small, assistant director of CSS’s housing and homeless services and current director of Mercy Hospice.

“This is a chance for them to celebrate themselves, and for us to let them know that they are special,” she said. “It’s all about them today.”

CSS provided childcare services for the mothers on hand “so they could just be themselves,” she added. “We have coloring books here, but they’re for the moms.”

Attendees at a July 9 “Queen for a Day” luncheon hosted by CSS enjoyed the event’s luau-themed decor. (Gina Christian)

Both longtime CSS ministries, which are beneficiaries of the annual Catholic Charities Appeal, support women experiencing homelessness as well as addiction and mental health challenges. The outreaches are part of a constellation of similar CSS sites that collectively serve hundreds of individuals each year.

While offering a much-needed respite from counseling sessions, caseworker meetings and life skills classes, the monthly “Queen for a Day” luncheons help “build community,” said Amy Stoner, CSS’s director of community-based, housing and homelessness services.

“It’s comfortable and family-like,” said Stoner, noting the outreaches’ day program, Mercy Café, gives clients a safe, reliable place to come “for lunch, a shower, clothes, feminine hygiene products through our ‘Ladies’ Locker’ and anything they need.”

Research suggests leisure activities can offset the chronic stress associated with homelessness, while enhancing positive coping and behavioral skills.

Gatherings such as last Friday’s also help to break down social barriers. Along with the new Bishops Dinners at St. John’s Hospice, the “Queen for a Day” luncheons are literally bringing CSS staff, clients, clergy and volunteers to the table – where everyone has a place, said Stoner and Hudson-Small.

Amy Stoner of Catholic Social Services (right) and Mercy Hospice client Donna Picuri (left) caught up with each other during a July 9 “Queen for a Day” lunch CSS hosted at its Women of Hope site in Philadelphia. (Gina Christian)

“Honestly, you could come to these events and not know who is an employee and who is a resident or client,” Stoner said. “That’s when you know you’re doing something right.”

Rather than lending a hand from on high, she said, “we’re not doing for – we’re doing with.”

For Mercy Hospice client Donna Picuri, last Friday’s luau was a time to savor the simple pleasures lost to the pandemic.

“It’s a humbling time,” she said. “(COVID) taught us … all these little things that we take for granted, to really get the joy out of them; really learn to stop, enjoy and appreciate them more,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that sitting down for a get-together would be taken away from me, that it would become a foreign thing.”

And that’s why the luau luncheon was “really a time to celebrate,” said Picuri.

Stoner agreed.

“We’re sharing a meal together, and that’s what it’s all about,” she said.