Br. Tim Sucher, OFM, chats with Andre Indalecisco. All photos by Sr. Eileen Connelly, OSU
Everyone needs a place where they feel safe and secure, where they can experience community, acceptance and, most of all, God’s love.
St. Francis Seraph Church is such a place in the heart of Over-the-Rhine (OTR), where the doors are open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily (with shorter hours on Sunday), and all are welcome.
On any given day, said Tim Sucher, pastoral associate, some 20 to 30 people, most of them homeless, can be found in church. Some people stop in just to use the restroom. Others embrace the peaceful atmosphere, quietly conversing, resting, and even sleeping.
Approximately seven or eight years ago, gentrification of the area south of OTR began pushing people to St. Francis Seraph’s doorstep, explained Tim. “People have always been around, but not in the numbers we’ve seen in recent years,” he said. “They were displaced from Washington Park and other areas. That brought them here and created bigger needs for them.”
The 2017 establishment of the nearby St. Anthony Center, where multiple non-profit organizations serve the basic needs of the impoverished and homeless in one location, has also drawn people to the area, added Al Hirt, pastor. “People were just hanging out on the steps of the church all day and night and it just wasn’t an ideal situation. We wanted to respond to the needs of the people, but still keep things safe.”
In response, St. John the Baptist Province decided to open the church daily and hire security, but there are rarely issues. “People are generally very grateful and respectful,” Tim said, noting that they may increase the hours the church is unlocked with the arrival of warmer weather.
During the height of COVID, the places for people to find shelter were even more limited, Al noted, so there would frequently be as many as 40 to 50 people seeking refuge in the church. The numbers also increase during the winter months. While many people find a space to stay overnight in area shelters, they may not have the most restful night, so they come to the church to sleep in a warm, safe place.
Providing that space is “who we are as Franciscans,” Tim said. “We’re responding to the needs of the people who are poor, homeless or have addictions. It’s our call not only to help them, but to be with them. Our God entered into relationship with us by becoming one of us. For us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, in St. Francis’ footsteps, we need be in relationship with our brothers and sisters.”
“St. Francis talks about encounter all of the time and left us a very clear model of that in his encounter with the leper,” added Al.
He noted that a group of St. Francis Seraph parishioners have recently been meeting to discuss Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti and how they can apply the encyclical in their own lives and ministries. “We’ve talked about being either an indifferent bystander or a Good Samaritan, and, of course, there’s no option. We are brothers and sisters and can’t just ignore each other. There may be uncomfortable moments, but it’s the kind of uncomfortable that’s good for people to feel.”
Both Tim and Al consider that opportunity for encounter to be a blessing, whether it’s listening to peoples’ stories, offering prayers or finding additional services for them. Al recalled locking the church on one Saturday evening, when he was approached by a man who said, “I come into the church to rest and am just really thankful to you.”
His thanks was echoed by others who have found a sense of safety and community there.
On a Tuesday afternoon in early March, Andre Indalecisco, who is new to Cincinnati, found himself drawn to St. Francis Seraph after receiving assistance at St. Anthony Center and seeing people gathered on the front steps of the church. He approached one person who told him that it was a sanctuary for people in the neighborhood and he would be welcomed there. Once inside, he prayed for friend in need of surgery and was assured of the prayers of the friars while chatting with Tim.
Karri Bartley has been homeless for nearly three years and has lived under a bridge off and on during that time. She’s especially grateful to have a warm place to go during the winter’s chill. “If I didn’t have the church to come to, I’d freeze,” she said.
She also appreciates being treated with dignity and respect when she visits St. Francis Seraph. “I’ve had people cross the street to avoid me,” Karri said. “Just because someone is homeless or doesn’t have a job, we’re still human. I’ve found people with kind hearts at the church, people who care about those of us who might be cold or hungry. I feel lighter when I come into the church and am grateful they keep it open.”
Anthony Cook is a frequent visitor to the church and can often be found making sure the space is free of trash and that people are being respectful and orderly. “I’m Brother Tim’s right hand man,” he said with a smile.
Having experienced homeless himself, Anthony said, “I know what it feels like to lose everything, and no one likes being on the street.”
After a near death experience years ago and the reassurance that God has plans for him, he said, “I don’t know what those plans are, but maybe this is it: helping to care for the homeless. I just know that God is good and this is a good place.”
“I come into the church for peace and comfort for my soul,” said James C. Moore. “Churches that open their doors to the homeless are such a blessing. This is what God’s love is all about. I appreciate all that Tim and Al do. They’re good guys.”
Although he’s no longer homeless, Gene Sherrod still visits St. Francis often to experience the enduring sense of community and security. “It’s good of the friars to keep the doors open for us,” he said. “I feel safe in the house of the Lord.”