The St. Francis Breadline forms early each morning seven days a week outside St. Francis of Assisi Church and Friary on West 31st Street in Manhattan. By 5:30 a.m., people begin gathering to receive a meal that volunteers at the Franciscan parish don’t start handing out until 90 minutes later.
CNY photographer Eileen Miller and I were told to be sure to arrive on time. That meant getting to the Franciscan church by 7 a.m. sharp, because the friars and volunteers swiftly move through the line of 400 people, mostly men, at a brisk pace, handing out packs with a hearty sandwich such as roast beef or chicken cutlet and a container of juice from a rolling cart. Cups of steaming coffee are also readily available. It takes a grand total of about 15 minutes to reach every person with food or drink.
Then again, those who run the St. Francis Breadline have had a long time to streamline their operation, 80 years to be precise. Brother Gabriel Mehler, O.F.M., began the breadline on Sept. 26, 1930, during the Great Depression. That first day, the 186 people who showed up each received a sandwich and a nickel that the friar had prepared for them. In the first two years, the number of people coming for assistance would climb to about 4,000 people a day.
The Depression eventually ended, of course, but the need for the breadline never went away, and the need has picked up as the economy soured in recent years, as Father Jerome Massimino, O.F.M., pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and guardian of the friary, explained to me when I was there.
Father Michael Carnevale, O.F.M., a parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi who has directed the breadline for the past five years, said today’s clients are likely to be homeless, with many also suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol.
He said that the friars, two of whom are present each morning, and lay volunteers, some of whom travel long distances to lend a hand, come to learn the personal stories of those whom they are assisting over time. The knowledge often leads to offers of assistance in finding housing or referrals to experts who can help with other problems. Many times, the response from the client is a firm no, but that doesn’t deter the friars.
“The ones who have responded, we’ve tried to help,” Father Carnevale said simply.
On the day CNY visited the breadline earlier this month, the temperature was below the freezing mark as the night lifted into the day ahead. Two of the regular volunteers are men who have taken steps to turn their lives around thanks to the assistance received at St. Francis.
Jason Toeroek, a strapping young man, said he has been coming to volunteer a few times each week since the summer. The former restaurant worker, who said he’d like to regain a job in the field, remembered regularly attending Mass at St. Francis in the 1990s. He hit a rough patch in 2002, which resulted in a period of homelessness that included sleeping on the church steps of St. Francis on some nights.
After he began coming to the breadline, the friars helped him to replace his forms of personal identification and document an account of his homelessness, which were both crucial to him being able to qualify for the single-room apartment in a hotel in Times Square he now occupies.
“I almost can’t put it into words,” he said in an interview. “They’ve been an integral part in getting my life back together.”
The other man, Anthony Rauba, is a lead volunteer, who walks the line six mornings a week to make sure things run smoothly and also helps with the ordering.
He came to the breadline about seven years ago while living on the streets of the Bronx. Father Carnevale vouched for him in a letter written to the agency that assisted him in getting into Section 8 housing in the Bronx.
Rauba was candid in explaining many of his problems to me, but it’s also clear that he relishes the opportunity to give back to the same place where he’s found so much good. “I deal with the people on the line on a friendly basis,” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘You’re jumping the line, get back in line.’ It’s a give and take.
“It’s rewarding for me to do that,” he explained. “Between God and St. Francis, that’s where I am. I’ve progressed.”
Father Carnevale pointed out the generosity of people who donate to St. Francis to keep the well-known breadline above the break-even point, noting that it’s not cheap to give out 400 quality sandwiches each day. Cooperators in the mission help by donating their time, treasure and talent, like the knitting groups who donate scarves by the hundreds.
There is also something profoundly Franciscan about the operation, in the give-and-take between friars, volunteers and clients. “The friars believe this is what Francis asked us to do,” Father Carnevale said. “Always being there for the poor and marginalized people, that’s a fulfillment of the charism of Francis.”
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