Archbishop pays Christmas visit to St. Francis House shelter

Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley joined the guests and servers for the Christmas Day dinner at the St. Francis House, a day shelter for the homeless in downtown Boston, where more than 500 meals were served.

The archbishop arrived at 10:30 a.m., just as the first meals were put on the plates. His entered the shelter under the bright floodlights of the four television news crews covering the event.

It is important to remember, especially at Christmas, that Jesus was also homeless, said Archbishop O’Malley as he offered his blessing over the meal.

“I was struck by the archbishop’s words reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters and that society becomes better when we relate to each other’s common humanity,” said Karen LaFrazia, the shelter’s executive director.

“He is a quiet and unassuming man, and when one of the guests started to tell him the story of his recovery and Christian fellowship, the archbishop stopped and gave the man his undivided attention for 15 minutes — really focusing on what the man wanted to share,” she said.

“I told Archbishop O’Malley that the people at St. Francis do good work,” said Cleve Ware, one of the diners. “I thanked him for coming here and helping people like us.”

Ware said he relies on the shelter for clean clothes, meals and a place to take a shower.

He said he is a 1972 graduate of Brookline High School, but grew up in Alabama before his family moved to Massachusetts.

“When we talked, I told the archbishop that he should turn the closed churches into affordable apartments,” he said. “He told me that he was going to do that.”

Just the archbishop’s presence was enough to lift the spirits of the diners and workers, said Kelly Burke, one of the 30 volunteers, who helped cook and serve the holiday meal.

Burke said that when she serves the guests, she listens for specific requests. “Sometimes they ask for dark meat instead of white meat or extra mashed potatoes. I try to cater to them, because that’s how I like to be treated when I eat a special meal.”

During Thanksgiving 1998, Burke’s father, the late Kevin C. Burke, a retired executive vice-president of Xerox, challenged his family to give back to the community by volunteering at that year’s Christmas meal at the St. Francis House, said Brendan J. Burke, Kelly’s brother. “He felt our family was fortunate and blessed and he wanted to show us a path of gratitude and service.”

Brendan Burke said although their father passed away before the next Christmas, the family continued to volunteer, “We are carrying the torch for my father’s vision.”

“When we started, we would open our Christmas presents then drive in [to the shelter]. Now, we are a little older, we work at the dinner, then open our presents when we get home,” said Wendy E. Burke, Kelly and Brendan’s mother.

Work in the kitchen started at 8:30 a.m., said Don R. Wells, the shelter’s dining room coordinator. This was the seventh year that Wells has worked at the shelter for the Christmas Day meal, he said. He started as a security guard. Then, he worked in kitchen until he was promoted to the dining room coordinator. “Today, I am the chef!” he said.

Standing in the center of the kitchen wearing a white cook’s shirt and checkered pants, Wells directed traffic and encouraged volunteers, who were mashing potatoes, stirring gravy and carving up turkey. “The turkeys had to be in the oven by 9:30 am,” he said.

Wells said that he started with 37 whole turkeys that were cooked and carved for the meal. The guests ate approximately 200 pounds of stuffing, 150 pounds of peas and baby carrots and 40 pies.

On normal days, the shelter serves two meals per day, breakfast from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. and lunch from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. After the lunch, there are sandwiches available until the shelter closes at 4:00 p.m., said John F. Finneran, a security officer. “On holidays, we serve a little longer.”

“No one is turned away, but we have to be considerate of the volunteers,” he said.

 The dining room regularly seats 72 guests at a time, but on holidays the number is closer to 50 because there are extra serving tables, he said.

In back of the front security desk is an atrium where guests wait for seats. The dining room staff uses radios to call back to the atrium when seats are available. Guests are sent to the dining room in groups of 10, he said.

During the meal, LaFrazia reflected on the work of St. Francis House, “People have to know that their money is not being wasted.”

“This is not a black hole: Programs like ours give the homeless the help they need to get on their feet,” she said.

Society makes homeless people disposable and strips them of their dignity. Nobody looks at them. Nobody touches them. Nobody speaks to them. “This might be the only place where they are called by their first name,” she said.

When clients come to the shelter, counselors help them conduct an inventory of skills and personality strengths, she said. Over time, the clients develop a plan to build a new life. They find work that matches their strong suits and begin career tracks, she said.

LaFrazia scanned the room, “I won’t tell you who they are, but there are volunteers here today who were once clients of the shelter.”

“At one time, 21 percent of my permanent staff was former clients — intelligent, capable people who needed a chance,” she said.

“The problem is that every time we move someone out on their own, there are more who need our help. Even as the economy gets stronger, none of that has trickled down to our clients,” she said.