Friars Offer a Respite from Toronto's Mean Streets

TORONTO—The red brick frontage on St. Francis Table restaurant in downtown Toronto gives little hint of the wealth and diversity of charitable activity going on inside.

It's a small storefront, with no more than 50 people squeezing into its cramped confines at any one time. But what it may lack in glamour is more than compensated for in compassion.

Located in the heart of Parkdale, one of Toronto's most desolate inner-city locales, St. Francis Table is making a bold if humble statement about care and service to the less fortunate.

Founded in March 1988 by the Capuchin Franciscan Friars in Toronto, St. Francis Table offers full-course meals, companionship, and a quiet respite from the city's mean streets for the homeless, the unemployed, refugees, ex-convicts, street people, and single-parent families. The restaurant is named for St. Francis of Assisi, and the adjoining St. Clare Center takes its name from one of his most famous followers.

The restaurant and drop-in center are located just a few blocks west of one of the city's largest mental health institutions, and many of their patrons are ex-psychiatric patients. In fact, restaurant officials estimate that up to one half the restaurant's regular customers are recovering mental patients. While this may present special challenges to St. Francis Table staff and volunteers, it remains firmly a part of the restaurant's special charism.

According to Capuchin Brother Alan Gaebel, St. Francis Table is more than a traditional soup kitchen. The restaurant strives to preserve client’ sense of self-worth by charging $1 for each meal. “The charge is aimed at helping people retain their dignity,” Brother Gaebel said, “but no one is turned away for lack of a dollar. We might ask these people a few questions up front to make sure the service we offer is not abused, or that we're not being taken advantage of.”

Brother Gaebel took over as director of St. Francis Table in June 1998. In his seven months in the new role, Brother Gaebel has noted an increase in the number of clients visiting St. Francis Table.

“In the period June to October 1998, we served just over 18,000 meals, which works out to in excess of 3,600 meals per month,” he said. “It can be a challenge to continue meeting our needs, but with the help of our volunteers and supporters, we always find a way.”

Brother Gaebel emphasized that St.Francis Table does not cut corners when it comes to the quality and nutritional value of its meals. “We don't serve anything we wouldn't eat ourselves,” he said.

St. Francis Table can serve up to 44 people at a time, and more than 300 meals are provided each day. Brother Gaebel estimated that the restaurant has served more than 100,000 customers.

Government cutbacks in Canada have meant less money for various social problems and more strain on Church and charitable groups that care for the poor and marginalized.

But if the challenges have become greater, so has the motivation. “I find the motivation is always there because we are dealing with people,” Brother Gaebel said. “We have a chapel on the premises, but we don't necessarily push religion on our clients. … Instead we find God in the face and the suffering of the poor.”

Meals are available six days a week at St. Francis Table. In addition to regular brunch and dinner, the adjoining St. Clare Center provides a living room atmosphere where guests can socialize after meals. The center also provides a much-needed foot-care program, a community bingo, Alcoholics’ Anonymous gatherings, and weekly video nights.

The Capuchin Friars and St. Francis Table volunteers operate under a vision statement which in part calls for “a commitment to creating a faith community with the poor through direct services that enhance human dignity.”

Their restaurant project has spawned imitators throughout Ontario. Its success has led to the establishment of a similar operation, The Knights Table, in Brampton, northwest of Toronto. Susan Groat, manager of the establishment begun in 1990, just three years after St. Francis Table got started, says that the Knights Table “learned from the experience of St. Francis Table in setting up our successful operation. St. Francis was a wonderful model for us to follow here in Brampton.” Other communities are considering plans to set up their own restaurants modeled on St. Francis Table

“We've been asked to share our experience with some of the newer operators,” Brother Gaebel said. “But

… I don't know of other groups which match exactly our operation.”

St. Francis Table receives no government or institutional funding. It relies almost entirely on donations from individuals and groups for its survival. On several occasions, however, the Toronto archdiocese has provided a financial boost to St. Francis Table by allocating a portion of the funds raised through its annual Cardinal's Dinner. The dinner, usually held each November, generates much needed revenue for a number of archdiocesan charities.

Michael Fullen, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Toronto, told the Register that St. Francis Table “is a strong and positive presence, here on the west end of Toronto. They've been providing a valuable service to the community, and one which especially promotes the dignity of individuals and families.”

Operating funds may present an ongoing challenge, but Brother Gaebel reported that volunteers have always been abundant at St. Francis Table. “We can get by with about a dozen volunteers for each meal we serve,” he said, “but there has always been enough help to go around. We have help from high school students, community groups, and regular supporters, and we're often fielding requests from others who want to lend a hand.”

George Chester of Toronto is one such supporter who drifted into St.Francis Table and has made it a part of his life. A volunteer since 1990, Chester wanted a way to keep busy in his retirement years. He found a willing partner in St. Francis Table. Despite declining health and mobility, Chester travels to the restaurant five times a week to collect the $1 meal charge from St. Francis Table patrons.

“It has been a truly rewarding time for me,” Chester told the Register. “It may sound like a cliché, but I get far more out of working here than I give. There's a true sense of community here and it helps me in working on a sense of spirituality, of giving something to the less fortunate.”

Chester's community spirit is well founded. In addition to his work at St. Francis Table, Chester is co-founder of Toronto's unique Out of the Cold program, a campaign which provides for church basements to be left open on winter nights to provide shelter to the city's growing number of homeless and unemployed.

“I've continually been encouraged by people's willingness to help out at St. Francis,” Brother Gaebel said. “I'm hoping that it's a response to the sense of community we've attempted to establish around here since 1988.”

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto.