I was sitting here waiting on the bus, about freezing to death, the first time I saw him,” Kelly Howard says of Brother Al Mascia and the Canticle Café mobile unit. She recalls the line forming at the Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit and people walking away with coffee and sandwiches. “I said, ‘Free? Are you serious?’ So I got me a sandwich and it was wonderful. I was going to the doctor, didn’t eat, you know. I’m a diabetic, so it really helped me out.”
Five days a week, teams of volunteers minister in the style of St. Francis, who left the walls of Assisi to help others. The first official run of the bicycle-cart ministry, which includes a back-end trailer loaded with seasonal necessities such as hats, gloves, scarves, socks, and hand- and foot-warmers, was Christmas Day 2010.
The mobile-units ministry follows an 18-year tradition of St. Aloysius Parish (served by the Franciscans of our own St. John the Baptist Province) opening the doors of their community center’s Canticle Café six mornings a week. Visitors to the Café would find coffee, along with donated breakfast food.
The Café, part of the parish’s community center, was a respite for men, women and children who had no home or needed a meal; a place to warm up in the winter or cool off in the summer. Seniors in nearby subsidized apartment buildings also gathered for fellowship and weekly grocery bags. Then, this past October, the building holding the community center and parish offices was shuttered.
“Once we learned that we would no longer be able to remain for a number of reasons, including safety reasons, we started exploring the possibility of renting space of our own. That led to dead ends,” says Brother Al, coordinator of street ministry.
The parish offices were moved across the street and are tucked into a small area of the ground floor of the rectory, attached to St. Aloysius Church. “We Franciscans still felt a tremendous need to remain and serve and minister in downtown Detroit, and we’re committed to continue to do so,” says Brother Al, even without a brick-and-mortar structure.
Brother Al, once a New Yorker, remembered the vendor carts plying their goods in New York and the well-known Passover song “Dayenu,” sung at every Seder meal. The song, listing the mighty acts of God, says that each act “would have been enough.” Brother Al thought about a cart: Even if that’s all we have, that would be enough. The Canticle Café would be reborn—on wheels!