NEW YORK — Nestled deep inside Manhattan’s dark, concrete canyons is a tiny, red-brick church that enkindles the light of hope. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York City fights the good fight against urban poverty and despair by witnessing to Christ’s message. One way the parish’s Franciscan friars do this is by distributing bread to those in need, particularly on June 13, the feast of St. Anthony of Padua.
This year, the church will distribute 80,000 loaves of bread on the feast, in memory of the Franciscan saint’s care and concern for the poor.
A banner over the hall in which the bread distribution is held greets volunteers. It reads: “For those who have to share with those who have not.”
It’s not just a quaint, European custom, but, rather, a Christian response to a very real economic problem: All donations help feed the poor and hungry in the daily St. Francis bread line.
Nearly 100 volunteers hand out loaves of bread to those who come, some traveling as much as three hours to get here.
The friars have been distributing “St. Anthony’s bread” on his feast day since the mid-1970s, but the tradition stretches back to the days of St. Anthony himself.
Different legends surround the distribution of St. Anthony’s bread. One account traces its origin to 1263, when, it is said, a child drowned near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, which was in the process of being built. His mother made a promise to the saint that if the child was restored to her, she would distribute wheat and bread to the poor of the city. Her prayer was answered, and she kept her promise.
Another story traces the practice to Louise Bouffier, a shopkeeper in Toulon, France. Bouffier had lost the key to her shop and asked a locksmith to help her. Just as he was about to break down the door, she asked St. Anthony to intercede: If the shop’s door would open without force, she would donate bread to the poor. Miraculously, the door opened. In her joy, she also kept her promise.
Eight Masses a Day
Franciscan Father Thomas Walters, the friar in charge of the bread distribution, spoke about this year’s feast.
“We look forward to seeing all of our volunteers and people devoted to St. Anthony to help the poor. We have a lot more Asian and Haitian people who come to celebrate the feast each year, who have many in their midst who need our help and assistance. All come to share what they have with those who have little in these difficult economic times here and in their homeland, so it is good that we can join together in prayer and resources in honor of St. Anthony.”
The church has an active ministry in the heart of Manhattan’s Midtown, offering eight well-attended Masses every day. However, for the feast of St. Anthony, the parish will add an additional five to accommodate the pilgrims who arrive from throughout the greater metropolitan area.
Penny and Eloise Cuevas, sisters from Queens, have been bread-distribution volunteers for 20 and eight years, respectively.
“I love volunteering here at St. Francis of Assisi Church,” said Eloise. “There’s something special about this church. I love being able to give something back to the Church I love. And it’s all for a good cause, as the money we collect in donations goes to help feed the poor who come here every day.”
According to a history on the parish website, St. Francis dates to 1844, when the midtown Manhattan area known as Bloomingdale was a neighborhood of dirt roads and modest frame houses. The city’s extraordinary growth at the turn of the 20th century stimulated great social and economic change. Urban development altered the face of many neighborhoods, populated mostly by Catholics from Ireland, Poland, Italy and Germany. Midtown felt this upheaval the most, as a great deal of it was converted to office space and light industry. Many families moved away when their stable, working class community was transformed into the heart of New York City’s “Tenderloin District.”
To keep up with the social changes around them, the friars created a “parish without parishioners,” an urban “service church” suited to the needs of a transient population of commuters, shoppers, tourists, laborers and business people.
The first of these changes was the introduction of what came to be known as the “Nightworkers’ Mass” meant for those Catholics who worked the night shift, as well as actors, telephone operators, police officers, sanitation workers, theatergoers, newspapermen and travelers out of Penn Station who had either arrived in the city late at night or had a long wait between connecting trains.
St. Francis soon responded to the spiritual needs of daytime employees and became the first church in America to receive permission to celebrate a daily Mass as late as 12:15pm. The pastor who introduced the noon Mass, Franciscan Father Anselm Kennedy, also began hearing confessions throughout the entire day. In 1929, in response to the Great Depression, Father Kennedy started a daily bread line.
Distribution of bread in honor of St. Anthony is becoming very popular in other churches, as well.
“I’ve heard of many Catholic parishes throughout the country who are starting the custom of distributing bread to the poor on this day,” said Father Walters. “Most of them aren’t Franciscan. There is a lot of need these days and many generous people who recognize that need.”
Register Correspondent Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York City.
St. Anthony’s bread will be distributed at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on Monday, June 13, from am to 7pm in the 32nd Street courtyard entrance of the church.
Confessions will be heard in the lower church from 7:30am to 6pm, as well as veneration of the relic of St. Anthony.
Church of Saint Francis of Assisi
135 West 31st St.
New York, N.Y. 10001