Fr. Joseph Sagayaran and Third Order Franciscan Yesmil Pena helped launch St. Philip Neri’s Table at Toronto’s St. Philip Neri Parish. Photo by Michael Swan

St. Philip Neri’s Table feeds poor among us

  • July 23, 2022

With food prices rising 9.7 per cent between April 2021 and April 2022, Third Order Franciscan and St. Philip Neri parishioner Yesmil Pena decided the time is now for action.

“I don’t think being a secular Franciscan is only to be in the convent,” said Pena, a quality assurance manager at Mississauga, Ont., medical device company MyndTech Inc.

Inspired by St. Francis’ Table, the Capuchin Franciscan’s restaurant for the poor in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Pena teamed up with St. Philip Neri pastor Fr. Joseph Sagayaran to launch St. Philip Neri’s Table.

“Fr. Joseph guided me to realize there is something we could do for the poor,” Pena said.

But the way Sagayaran tells the story, it was Pena’s idea and the priest’s role was simply to encourage her.

“I was telling Yesmil, ‘It’s a wonderful idea, but where do we start? How do we start?’ ‘OK, just leave it to me,’ she said,” Sagayaran recalled.

Starting with just a table in the lobby of the west-end Toronto church, St. Philip Neri’s Table has gradually acquired a room where patrons can pick up their groceries, plus a pantry in the basement, an agreement with Second Harvest and another agreement with St. Francis’ Table for a back-up supply of food.

“The numbers seem to be growing,” said Sagayaran. “From 10, 15, 20 to last Saturday we had 71 people, which means 71 families.”

Pena is concerned by what she has learned reading the Daily Bread Food Bank annual Who’s Hungry report. Last year there were 1.45 million visits to Toronto food banks, a 61-per-cent increase over the year previous. One in five food bank patrons reported they had lost their job in the previous year, but two in five simply weren’t earning enough money to pay the rent and buy groceries.

“We’ve had the opportunity to notice over time that our patrons, a big percentage of the patrons were people sitting in our pews,” Pena said. “The poor are really among us. We shouldn’t be indifferent to that.”

Pena is particularly concerned about the people who have to rely on Ontario’s disability pensions or the Ontario Works welfare scheme.

“The welfare doesn’t grow with inflation. I don’t see any plans for the government to increase the social services in proportion with inflation,” she said.

Pena has a database with 40 registered volunteers willing to help stock the pantry, sort and distribute food and greet patrons. Increasingly, the volunteers come from among the patrons themselves. A Saturday morning distribution requires five people on site to ensure guests are greeted, inventory is tracked and the right food is handed out for each household. Though it receives some food from Second Harvest and the overflow at St. Francis’ Table, St. Philip Neri’s Table is reliant on St. Philip Neri parishioners for the bulk of its stock.

There’s more to it than just handing out cans of beans and bags of pasta. Pena values the work of St. Philip Neri’s Table for its capacity to build relationships and include people who are often left out. She also draws inspiration from Pope Francis.

“You know Laudato Si’ from Pope Francis?” she asked. “The part that says we are listening to the cry of the poor? That is a way to exercise the Laudato Si’ call for us.”

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