A celebrated Kensington soup kitchen turns 25.
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This week Kensington's St. Francis Inn soup kitchen turns 25. Over the last quarter century thousands of people from across Philadelphia have made their way to the former go-go bar in search of a meal, sometimes walking miles in rough weather. Franciscan friars, nuns and lay volunteers serve food here every day of the year.
By opening a door to a handful of alcoholic men on Dec. 16, 1979, and offering them soup and leftover wedding cake, the mission's founder, Father Roderic Petrie, established a tradition that remains unchanged--but has since expanded to include women, children and even entire families.
"There are wonderful people here," says volunteer Rudy Anderson, who once lived in a shelter himself. "Sometimes they even go out of their way to help you."
Staff members have clothed patrons, bathed them, hugged them and helped them find medical care. Yet as extraordinary as the staff's dedication is, the Inn itself looks shabby and unremarkable from outside on Kensington Avenue.
The mission's physical size has increased in the last decade, thanks to filmmaker Gerry Straub's movie We Have a Table for Four at the Inn. The documentary features intimate interviews with the kitchen's patrons and the friars, along with stark images of poverty in surrounding Kensington.
"Father Xavier came to me when I was living on the railroad in an abandoned truck, and found me a place to live. He saved my life," says one man in the film.
"When you're at the Inn, it feels like you're with your family again," says another.
After the film first aired on PBS in 1999, donations to the soup kitchen increased significantly for some time. The extra money was used to build a larger facility and an adjacent courtyard, so people could gather outside, eating oatmeal-and-donut breakfasts amid the flower beds, instead of merely walking away with a bag of food.
Those who run the St. Francis Inn want patrons to socialize while they eat. "We feel good about having the facilities to provide sit-down meals, not just cafeteria-style meals", says Father Michael Duffy, who has worked at the Inn 17 years. "There are connections made, not just among patrons and volunteers but between the volunteers themselves. Many people have found their significant others here. One couple met in the garbage yard. Sometimes I don't know if this is Club Med or a soup kitchen."
No one who works at the Inn receives pay. "We do not wish to serve the poor, but to be poor." states the first of seven guidelines issued by the St. Francis Inn Ministry.
The kitchen's many volunteers arrive in Kensington from faraway places, as well as from local suburbs, high schools and colleges. Some slice vegetables; others wait tables or pour tea. Everyone cleans.
"We receive no government funding," explains Duffy. "There are too many guidelines. We don't want to have to decide who are the worthy poor. We have no restrictions on who eats here, and we never require anyone to pray before they can eat. But we also don't want to have to take down our crucifixes in order to receive money."
The St. Francis Inn is just one of Philadelphia's 500 volunteer-run soup kitchens. Greater Philadelphia Cares estimates that 400,000 people in Philadelphia are at risk for chronic hunger. Another nonprofit, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, estimates that there are 60,000 Philadelphians eligible for food stamps who don't know it.
St. Francis Inn
2441 Kensington Ave. 215.423.5845
Olivia Lehman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer from Narberth.