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St. Anthony Dining Room: The Loaf Keeps On Multiplying!
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Exactly 55 years ago, Franciscan friars in San Francisco opened a dining room to feed the poor. It has blossomed into an amazing social outreach.

Q U I C K S C A N

St. Anthony Was the Inspiration
Stories From Real Life
Levi Hoagland: Snatched From the Brink of Despair
Loretta Gonzales: 'Marian Residence Was Here for Me!'
Mark Ellinger: A Near-Fatal Struggle With Heroin
Thinking Big About the Future

 

Photo By Jon Hope Photography

It was October 4, 1950, the feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of San Francisco. On that day—in one of the poorest and most troubled neighborhoods of the city—a brown-robed Franciscan friar opened the doors of St. Anthony Dining Room for the first time. The friar was Father Alfred Boeddeker, O.F.M. He was the happy host of 400 guests, who found a place at the table and enjoyed a free meal. Father Alfred was the pastor of nearby St. Boniface Church on Golden Gate Avenue, which is located in a blighted district known as the “Tenderloin.” For some time the friar had wanted to do something meaningful for the hungry citizens who came to the friary door. Until then, people were simply given vouchers to get food at local restaurants.

Seeking to provide a more personal setting, Father Alfred found a vacated building nearby on Jones Street and had it remodeled. The new St. Anthony Dining Room became an integral part of the community—and was soon dubbed the “Miracle on Jones Street.” Though Father Alfred died in 1993, the “Miracle” is still alive today—and is fulfilling more social needs than ever before.

When St. Anthony Messenger visited the Dining Room earlier this year, 2,600 meals were being served each day on average. The “Miracle on Jones Street,” now greatly expanded, flourishes under a huge umbrella of social services known as St. Anthony Foundation. In addition to the Dining Room, the Foundation’s services—to name only a few—include:

•a free medical clinic and a social-work center;

Marian Residence, providing emergency shelter and transitional housing for 55 women;

Madonna Residence, providing housing for 51 low-income, homeless women;

Father Alfred Center, a rehabilitation program for 61 men recovering from alcohol and drug addiction;

St. Anthony Farm, a residential rehabilitation center for 42 men and women in recovery from addiction. Residents work in the organic garden and dairy.

A large two-story building next to St. Boniface Church serves as the Foundation’s headquarters. It houses the medical clinic and a number of other programs, as well as its administrative offices. Other buildings and departments of the Foundation are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

The whole operation runs on a $16 million annual budget, relying on 180 paid employees to keep it going, with an additional 500 volunteers lending a hand each month. The Dining Room alone depends on the help of 30 volunteers each day.

St. Anthony Was the Inspiration

In 1977, Father Alfred told a San Francisco journalist writing for St. Anthony Messenger how it all got started. Father Alfred was in St. Boniface Church conducting St. Anthony devotions. He focused his gaze on the statue of Anthony of Padua, which was located in the church at that time.

Anthony was giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. “I looked up at that loaf of bread,” Father Alfred recalled, “and said to myself, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ I tried to divert my mind from it, but it kept coming back again and again....I then more or less said to St. Anthony, ‘Well, you go ahead and do it, and I’ll help!’”

Some time later, when the place on Jones Street became available, St. Anthony Dining Room became a reality. “I wasn’t going to call it a restaurant or a soup kitchen,” said the friar, “but ‘his dining room.’ I felt St. Anthony could provide. He did—and has done so ever since. It still amazes me.”

Father Alfred saw to it that the Dining Room’s special link to St. Anthony would not be forgotten. When the Dining Room opened, he had already installed a statue of the saint near the entrance.

Each day, seven days a week, the thousand-plus guests and visitors who walk down the ramp off Jones Street and into the Dining Room pass directly under this statue of St. Anthony. They cannot help seeing that the saint, in a gesture of warm hospitality, holds out a small loaf of bread in his right hand.

Two quotations from Father Alfred appear on the walls flanking the statue: “The great activity of our life is to love” and “I see God as one act—just loving, like the sun always shining.”

The memory of Father Alfred is still very much alive at St. Anthony Foundation. His portraits, pictures and sayings pop up on lobby walls, in offices and in the various publications of the Foundation.

His spirit is also alive in the cheerful, upbeat, forward-looking personality of Father John Hardin, O.F.M., present-day executive director of St. Anthony Foundation. Father John, who lived with Father Alfred at St. Boniface from 1987 to 1991, told St. Anthony Messenger that his famous forerunner “had an uncanny ability to get people to realize his ideas. Father Alfred was a cheerleader and a promoter, in the best sense of the word. He built bridges between the wealthy and the poor.”

Father John, a native of Mississippi, tries to do the same. He speaks enthusiastically about his involvement with people in need. “I feel very strongly that I’m called to this work. My sense of responsibility to the poor was learned from my family,” he says. “My mother worked for Catholic Charities in Mississippi for 15 years!”

Asked if the “Miracle on Jones Street” is still happening at St. Anthony Foundation today, Father John replies, “Yes, we see miracles every day: in people getting a job or recovering from addiction, people starting to talk to each other, people sharing food in the Dining Room or allowing others to go before them in line.

“And we never run out of food! Even the cooks are amazed. That loaf of bread in the hand of St. Anthony and the loaves we read about in the Gospel keep on multiplying!” And yet, Father John points out, “The Foundation receives no government funds and depends entirely on private donations.” A good number of donations come to the Foundation from devotees of St. Anthony, but they come from a multitude of other sources, too—from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Another Franciscan engaged in the Foundation’s work for many a year is Father Floyd Lotito, O.F.M. This popular friar began working with Father Alfred at St. Anthony Foundation in 1968 and is still very active today and full of good cheer. At age 71, Floyd now mingles and chats daily with those standing in line for lunch and with other neighbors on the streets.

“Christ is in the Tenderloin and we have to find him,” Floyd says. “My role is just to be a brother. It’s a matter of loving first so things can happen. Many have low self-worth, so I try to go the opposite way and assure them: ‘Joe (or Ginny), God loves you and takes delight in you!’”

Other Franciscans serving as Foundation chaplains are Brothers Bob Brady, O.F.M., and Steve Gillis, O.F.M., and Franciscan Sister Andrea Turbak, O.S.F. Meanwhile, Brother Rami Fodda, O.F.M., serves as a medical assistant at the free medical clinic. Many Secular Franciscans also give joyful service at the Foundation.

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Stories From Real Life

Facts and figures and lists of services are perhaps not the best way to tell St. Anthony Foundation’s story. Real stories of real people give much more dramatic testimony to “the Miracle on Jones Street”—a miracle that continues to bring amazement to guests, staff and volunteers 55 years after Father Alfred first opened those Dining Room doors.

Levi Hoagland: Snatched From the Brink of Despair

When this 26-year-old native of Salinas, California, told his story to St. Anthony Messenger last February, he had already found a good measure of peace with the help of St. Anthony Foundation. This was after spending more than two years on the nightmarish path of addiction. Thanks to the Foundation, he had already, at the time of this interview, secured a paid job and a leading position of responsibility at St. Anthony’s Dining Room. This is Levi’s story.

At age 20, Levi Hoagland left Salinas and went to San Diego to join the Marines. His time with the Marine Corps, however, was short-lived. “I had developed a dependency on alcohol,” Levi confides, “and came to work one day under the influence. I was kindly asked to leave the Marines.”

While in San Diego, Levi had met the woman he eventually married. His addiction problems continued and eventually included drugs as well as alcohol. “I was feeling a lot of shame and guilt for being kicked out of the Marines,” he says. He was working at the time as an auto repair mechanic.

“My wife got pregnant,” Levi adds. “I made attempts to get clean and sober, but all my efforts ended in failure. My son was born, but I still couldn’t shake my problems.”

Levi wrestled with guilt and paranoia. On top of that, he felt he was losing his faith in God. As the son of a Baptist minister, he had received a good foundation for his Christian faith through Sunday church attendance and Bible study at home. Now he felt he was losing all sense of God’s presence because of his out-of-control habits.

One day, the reality of his desperate plight hit him like a bolt of lightning. He was sitting in his car in a parking lot and waiting for a drug dealer while his son sat in the backseat.

“I saw my son in the mirror—all innocent—and I remembered the words of my counselor: ‘If you succeed in getting clean, your son will never have to see you in a non-sober state.’ It was a moment of sudden enlightenment! I went straight home and talked to my wife.”

Levi told his wife it seemed important that he go away and look for help. He started a long trip from San Diego to San Francisco where a sister lived. Again, along the way, he fell into the grip of drugs and alcohol and felt himself growing psychotic. An emotional episode in a parking lot landed him temporarily in prison.

Finally, Levi got to San Francisco at three o’clock one morning. He went to his sister’s place. She let him use her computer to look for help. He found that the Salvation Army could take him in. It was December 23, 2003. They said he could stay through January 5.

Levi felt an overwhelming sense of relief. “I felt grateful to God that I had a safe trip and hadn’t hurt anyone or myself. Also, in reaching out for help, I didn’t feel alone anymore. I had a sense that God was there all along.”

At the Salvation Army detox center, Levi met a counselor who had been a client of St. Anthony Foundation. He offered to help Levi get into their rehabilitation center, now known as the Father Alfred Center. Levi happily accepted the offer. When he talked with me, he had already completed a yearlong rehabilitation program.

Now Levi says he feels very blessed. He is happy with his post at the St. Anthony Dining Room. During the past year, moreover, Levi and his wife made a commitment to see each other once a week. They hoped that trust could be restored and that the family could be together again.

As St. Anthony Messenger happily learned later, Levi and his wife have made a new start, and the family is together again in San Diego. If things keep going in the same direction—and that’s our prayer—their story may someday be another “Miracle on Jones Street”!

Loretta Gonzales: 'Marian Residence Was Here for Me!'

A San Francisco native, Loretta, 54, told her story to St. Anthony Messenger at Marian Residence, an emergency shelter and housing unit for women, located a few blocks from the Foundation’s main offices.

For 30 years, Loretta, whose family roots go back to Mexico, had been struggling with drugs and alcohol—moving in and out of various programs. Finally in 2001, homeless and nearly destroyed by heroin, she was accepted at Marian Residence. Later, she recalls, “I went to St. Anthony Farm near Petaluma, California, to work and to be rehabilitated. The Farm is one of the Foundation’s services. But two months later, I had to return to San Francisco for medical reasons. I had a relapse, then was arrested for domestic violence.”

Fortunately, relates Loretta, her incarceration for nine months “was what put a stop to everything”—and convinced her to turn her life around. In 2003, Loretta was accepted again at Marian Residence. “Part of my probation,” she says, “was to complete a drug program and a 52-week program to help deal with domestic violence issues.”

She is grateful to Marian Residence for giving her “a safe place” to stay—and three meals a day—while she completed these programs. It also enabled her to land a stable and very agreeable part-time job (as receptionist for Episcopal Community Services).

“I feel new hope now,” she says. “I’m grateful that Marian Residence has been here for me. I’m working on saving money and getting a permanent job. If I get that, I hope to leave here and get my own place.”

Mark Ellinger: A Near-Fatal Struggle With Heroin

“For five and a half years I was killing myself,” says Mark Ellinger, 56, holding his cane as he sits in an office at St. Anthony Foundation. “I shot some contaminated dope that contained flesh-eating bacteria. A friend found me lying on the corner of 7th and Market. When I came out of the coma, I saw a huge hole in my leg with tubes coming out. It was a radical life-changing experience. During the two months I spent in the hospital, I decided I wanted to live.”

That was about five years ago. Mark has since moved along to a much happier situation. In fact, on April 30, 2003, because of his admirable spirit, he was chosen for the honor of receiving St. Anthony Dining Room’s 30-millionth meal. Mark happily accepted the celebratory meal, presented to him on a tray by Executive Director Father John Hardin, O.F.M.

Mark had been coming to the Dining Room for a number of years, even during those years when he was a heroin addict living on the streets like a lost soul. On the occasion of the 30-millionth meal ceremony, he explained the importance of the Dining Room.

“During those times,” he said, “it meant a great deal to come into the Dining Room and have someone smile at me. A smile can be tremendously affirming to someone’s humanity. The biggest obstacle for me was getting past the stigma that society places on the homeless. It’s hard not to internalize the emotions that come with being looked at as a filthy, diseased, uneducated, worthless...non-human.

“I always love coming to the Dining Room. There is so much combined energy here, which seems to lift everyone up. The friars and everyone really put out a lot of love. And that’s what it’s totally about.”

Mark told St. Anthony Messenger that his journey started in Columbus, Ohio. Mark left for San Francisco in 1968 at age 19 to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. He eventually got into filmmaking and music and, in 1980, opened a recording studio in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Around 1985, a number of very close friends died. Suffering from burnout and depression, he left the studio behind. He wandered a bit aimlessly for some years, taking jobs that didn’t particularly appeal to him.

“In 1995, a really close friend died of a heart attack,” Mark says. “I fell apart. I started using heroin. I took it because it numbed out the pain. I was addicted in a matter of days.” This led eventually to the hospital stay that nearly cost him his leg, but also changed his life.

Mark now volunteers for an organization that fights for the rights of people living in the Tenderloin’s many old residential hotels. He gets some income from Social Security, but to survive he eats at St. Anthony Dining Room. “I’ve been a regular here for over four years. But St. Anthony’s is more than a meal ticket for me. It’s the best thing going on in my life! And Father Hardin is one of my dearest friends.”

Thinking Big About the Future

Even though problems like homelessness, poverty, hunger and addiction seem to get worse rather than better in the Tenderloin, the many devoted people who work and volunteer at St. Anthony Dining Room and the Foundation do not lose their spirit of joyful service.

This is certainly true of Father John Hardin. He looks around and says, “This is not a sad place. There is a lot of joy here despite the misery and suffering that is also apparent.” Father John is optimistic about the future.

In fact, the Foundation is already planning major expansions. A capital campaign is under way. There are plans to renovate completely the Foundation’s present headquarters next to St. Boniface Church on Golden Gate Avenue and to erect a new building across the street. When they finish building and rebuilding, says Father John, “The services of the Foundation will be greatly enhanced.

“The Bread in the hand of St. Anthony is still multiplying,” he says. “We will not be deterred from the mission of St. Anthony Foundation: ‘to feed, heal, shelter, clothe, lift the spirits of those in need and to create a society in which all persons flourish.’

“And I hope we will never lose our spirit of joy,” says the friar with a big warm smile.

For more information, contact: St. Anthony Foundation, 121 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102; phone (415) 241-2600; www.stanthonysf.org; e-mail: info@stanthonysf.org.


Jack Wintz, O.F.M., has been a writer and editor at St. Anthony Messenger for over 30 years. He recently revised and expanded the book Anthony of Padua: Saint of the People (published by St. Anthony Messenger Press). He is also the author of St. Francis in San Francisco (Paulist Press).

 


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