Seattle’s St. Francis House celebrates a half-century of feeding, clothing the poor
Living on a fixed income, Willie Lindsey can’t afford to replace her mattress or buy the two dining chairs that would give guests a place to sit down and enjoy her southern hospitality.
So on a recent Wednesday morning, Lindsey, a retired nurse’s aide, stopped at St. Francis House in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. She’s been there many times over the years, whenever she’s needed a little help with clothing or household items.
Everything at St. Francis House is free, with a bonus: volunteers who are a welcoming presence to their guests.
“They try to help you with everything you need, even conversation,” Lindsey said. “Some people need someone to talk to. Some people, they don’t want to come, but they have to,” she said. “Francis House is always open to everybody. I hope it never closes down.”
Although the Franciscan-inspired ministry is in its third location and neighborhood demographics have changed, the mission hasn’t. St. Francis House is celebrating its 50th year of serving the homeless, the working poor and people like Lindsey, getting by on fixed incomes.
Key to its longevity is a broad network that includes volunteers from some two-dozen parishes and Catholic schools. They contribute clothing, household items and money. They make sandwiches or pick up pastries to feed hungry guests. At Christmastime, they come bearing gifts. And they staff the center five days a week to sort donations and give personal attention to the nearly 14,000 people who come through the door each year.
“Our volunteers are amazing,” said Kathy Collins, who shares the executive director position with two others. “The bulk of our volunteers come because of their Catholic faith. I feel like every single Catholic church in the city does something for us,” she said. “It just inspires me.”
Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘We’re all alike’
Many of the ministry’s 90 volunteers hail from parishes in Seattle, Edmonds, Mercer Island and Kirkland. Some are students at Seattle University and some of Seattle’s Catholic high schools, earning service hours.
“Everyone is here for the right reason and I love the Catholic part of it,” said Joanie Williamson, a retired nurse from Seattle’s St. John the Evangelist Parish, who has been volunteering about two years. “It’s a real sense of a bigger community.”
After a decade of volunteering, it’s still “just so much fun,” Dona Ahearn of St. Paul Parish said while sorting clothing donations. “It really is the highlight of the week.”
Kay and Mike Kaiser, St. James Cathedral parishioners who live in Sammamish, started volunteering at St. Francis House about two years ago. The retirees were dropping off donations and were surprised to be greeted by Collins — an old friend from Kay’s days of working for the archdiocese.
“We signed up for Fridays and that’s how it’s been ever since,” Kay said. “It’s so wonderful, because Mike enjoys it as much as I do,” she said, and their adult daughter, Amy Sagerson, has joined them in the ministry.
Volunteering at St. Francis House has “done me more good than I think it’s done for the clients,” Mike Kaiser said. “They say that the first thing they do in the morning is thank God they’ve made it through the night,” he said. Life takes on a different perspective, he noted, “when you think about what you have and what they are able to get by with and still be thankful.”
For Kay, “it’s just a big eye-opener about how much we’re all alike, no matter what’s happened.”
Welcomed with prayer
People gather outside St. Francis House every Monday through Friday, waiting for the doors to open. At 10 a.m., guests join the staff in reciting the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, posted in several languages in the building’s “front room.” Then they’re welcomed in to pick up a cup of coffee and something to eat (doughnuts and sandwiches are usual fare).
Some clients come to shop for clothing and household items (they’re eligible every 30 days), get diapers for their babies, pick up an emergency food bag, or seek a bit of financial help. About 60 percent of the clients are homeless; many are grateful for a warm place to spend a couple of hours off the streets. Sleeping bags and backpacks, purchased with donations and grant money, are popular requests.
“I’ve come here just about every day to eat, and every chance I get to get some clothes,” said Brian Davis, who was trying on shirts and looking for a warm jacket. Disabled and homeless for three years, Davis took refuge wherever he could at night, even riding the bus until morning. Now life is looking up: In February, he moved into a studio apartment in Ballard and someone gave him a used car, so he can still get help at St. Francis House.
In the nearby “children’s room,” Josefina Mendoza of Beacon Hill was shopping for clothes to outfit her three children. She has been coming to St. Francis House for eight years, ever since her first child was born. The assistance is important because only her husband has a paying job. “The people here are so nice,” Mendoza said through an interpreter.
St. Francis House is the “most simple organization ever,” Collins said. It owns the building, has just three paid part-time positions and sends out a single request for donations each year. It receives no funding from the archdiocese or governmental agencies; instead, donations of money and goods come from individuals, parishes, hotels and companies like REI and Patagonia.
‘A joyful place’
Mary Lou Newman
Mary Lou Newman, a mother of seven, has been involved with St. Francis House for 49 of its 50 years, drawn by its Franciscan principles of “simplicity, humility and poverty.” After 15 years, she was tapped to be co-director, then director, until returning to volunteer status in 1996.
All those years of serving the poor, getting to know some of them over five, 10, 15 years or more, have left a lasting impression on Newman. “They teach me lessons,” she said. “Some of them are going to fall in the gutter and never get up, yet they’re people,” she said. “We don’t judge that.”
Anthony Hornbeak remembers Newman as “the shoe lady” sorting shoe donations when he came to St. Francis House as a youngster, during visits with Seattle relatives. Years later, when he lost his job in Seattle and became homeless, Hornbeak turned to St. Francis House for help. “Lo and behold, I come back in here and she’s still here,” he said of Newman. They struck up a conversation and “we just hit it off real good,” he said.
Newman got Hornbeak started as a volunteer, work that has turned into a paying job receiving donations and doing custodial work. Hornbeak has endeared himself to the team at St. Francis House with his lighthearted, positive attitude and fondness for modeling hat donations for volunteers (they created a photo display of “the many hats of Anthony”). After five years of living on the streets, Hornbeak recently got on a waiting list for an apartment with the help of a case manager.
Today, Newman is in her 80s, attends Seattle’s Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph parishes and still volunteers four days a week at St. Francis House.
“It’s my life,” she said. “It just amazes me to see how good people are. It’s really a joyful place to be.”
History of the house
Opened: April 1967 as Francis House at 1719 Yesler Way, just down the street from the Black Panther headquarters
Original services: coffee, companionship, clothing, some household items, sewing classes, a lending library, use of a typewriter and an educational program for 4-year-olds
Number served: 3,000 the first year, increasing to 20,000 annually by 1983
Other locations: 514 W. Broadway (1976–88), 169 12th Ave. (1988–present)
Renamed St. Francis House: May 11, 1988
Founders: Franciscan Father Antoine Wishom (assistant pastor, St. George Parish) and local members of the Third Order of St. Francis (secular Franciscans)
First director: Peggy Oaksmith
Source: St. Francis House history by Mary A. Seling
Northwest Catholic - May 2017