Theresa Zuccarino hands out meal tickets at St. Francis Inn in Kensington.

If you walk to the front gate of St. Francis Inn on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, you’ll likely meet Theresa Zuccarino. She’s affectionately known to many as “The Queen of Kensington.”

Zuccarino volunteers four days a week at this Franciscan ministry to the poor and those experiencing homeless in Philadelphia. She refers to herself as “the greeter,” handing out meal tickets to anyone who approaches and needs a good meal.

“The people we serve are guests. They call me ‘Mom’ or ‘Grandmom,’” says Zuccarino. “I love them. I call them my friends.  They’re a big part of my life.”

Her honorary title “Queen of Kensington” was coined by Father Michael Duffy, OFM, who leads and ministers at St. Francis Inn.

Father Duffy says he was inspired to give her that title because she greets everyone “with a big smile. Everyone knows her and everybody loves her. She has a real tender heart for people and they all love her.”

Zuccarino says, “I love it.  It’s a term of endearment.”

She was born in Philadelphia. Her father was a SEPTA Trolley driver, and her mother was a homemaker. A few years after her birth, her family moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and her father took a job as a truck driver.

In the summertime, the Atlantic City beach and boardwalk were Zuccarino’s playground as a child.

She says that since she was “a little girl,” she’s had a lifelong devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and he’s been a guiding light in her life ever since. “I’ve been trying to follow his path,” she says.

By following the path of St. Francis, Zuccarino says she’s “always felt a caring for others less fortunate,” whether they be marginalized people, or stray animals she found on the street.

Zuccarino eventually became a homemaker and mother to a son and daughter. Once her children were older, Zuccarino started working in social services.

She worked with the elderly as an Activity Leader in a nursing home, and she later worked for 20 years as a Supportive Living Counselor at The Arc of Atlantic County, helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in group homes.

“I’ve always bonded so much with everyone I’ve come in contact with,” she said.

Much like her favorite saint – St. Francis of Assisi – Zuccarino has a great affection for animals. She says that animal rescue – especially stray dogs and cats – has been very important to her throughout her whole life.

Over the years, she’s taken home many stray animals – recently including her gray tabby cat named Harvey, who she found on the street in Margate, New Jersey – and she’s often helped local animal rescues in any way she could.

“Even when I can’t take them in myself, I help with their placement,” she said of her animal rescue efforts.

Theresa and her cat Harvey.

It was after experiencing a health issue in the summer of 2015 that Zuccarino decided to leave Atlantic City for a newly constructed senior living community in Philadelphia developed by archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services’ called St. Francis Villa.  Named after her favorite saint, she felt it was the perfect place to spend her golden years.

When Zuccarino called to inquire about taking up residency at St. Francis Villa in 2015, the phone was answered by Heather Huot, who was named Secretary for Catholic Human Services (CHS) last December.

“I was very blessed to be the person tasked with receiving the phone calls from people interested in applying to live at St. Francis Villa.  That is how I first met Theresa,” said Huot. “For months leading up to the opening of St. Francis Villa, Theresa and I would talk on the phone sharing our excitement for the new community.”

About 3-4 weeks into her residency at St. Francis Villa, Zuccarino felt the urge to get involved in her local neighborhood. Again – following the path of St. Francis – she walked down the street to St. Francis Inn.

She started volunteering two days a week on the breakfast crew, serving coffee and tea, and bonding with the guests she served.

She later became a dining room server, and then took on her current role as greeter. St. Francis Inn serves up to 350 plates daily using donations from local grocery stores through Philabundance.

“The people we serve have become entwined in my life,” Zuccarino says. “It’s more than a volunteer job. I’ve become one of them.”

“It’s given her a new life,” says Father Duffy of Zuccarino’s volunteer work at St. Francis Inn.

“It has been incredible to witness Theresa not just moving into St. Francis Villa but becoming a part of the fabric of that little corner of Kensington,” said Huot. “With her gentle spirit and warm smile, she has become the face of welcome and understanding. A phone call to inquire about housing all those years ago has led to Theresa touching the lives of so many of our sisters and brothers.”