When I told the cab driver my destination, he peppered me with questions. For starters, what was a friary – something most people identify with medieval times – doing in the middle of Harlem? I found out when I arrived at St. Joseph Friary, a red brick building on West 142nd Street. “Every community must have a particular purpose,” Father Gabriel, the friar responsible for St. Joseph, explained, “and this community’s vocation is to serve the poor. How could we serve those in need if we were not living among them? Our presence here gives dignity to those who need our help.”
The friars and postulants living at St. Joseph Friary belong to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order founded in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars. Concerned by increasing secularism and wealth among the Capuchins, they sought to emulate Francis of Assisi, who spent his life helping the poor. Following his example, they left behind their personal possessions and started looking for people who needed help. From their beginnings in a troubled South Bronx neighborhood, they have grown to around 130 members, with friaries on three continents.
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal living at St. Joseph open their doors every Thursday to share a meal with the hungry. At eleven o’clock, men and women trickle in off the street and find their way down the narrow hall to the dining room. Once everyone is seated at the wooden tables, a gray-robed friar blesses the food and the soup is served. “It is Folish soup,” Father Gabriel explained, handing me a bowl, “because it was made by a postulant from France, and another from Poland.”
As we ate, Frank, an older man, was eager to talk. After growing up in Harlem, he’d worked on and off as a security guard, making minimum wage. Now, he said, he lives by himself, sometimes on the streets. “I come to the monks whenever I need some food. I know they’re always gonna be here to help. They’re the only good thing in this whole area.”
Across the table from us, another man, Steve, had finished his soup and joined in: “I love coming to see the brothers because they are so hardworking and funny. They pray for people, they visit people, and they are not afraid to live here with us.” When I asked Steve why he thought the friars gave up their former lives to live together in Harlem, he replied, “All these brothers are here because they want to do God’s work and be his messengers. If they weren’t here, who would visit us?”
The guests at the soup kitchen were unrestrained in their praise for the friars. They pointed out that volunteers at most soup kitchens travel home to richer, safer areas. By contrast, as Harlem residents, the Franciscans are very much a part of the community they serve.