St. Francis Table offers dignity for 20 years

  • September 17, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - Parkdale isn’t what it used to be. There are condos going up, gourmet restaurants offering Food Channel cuisine, artists and entrepreneurs sharing the sidewalk with the homeless, ex-psychiatric patients and the chronically unemployed.

It’s not that the poor have moved out. So far, it’s just that some of the rich have moved in.

However, St. Francis’ Table is still there, right in the heart of it, serving some pretty decent cuisine for a loonie per customer.

Fr. Terry Boland and Neil Thompson, both Capuchin friars at the time, launched St. Francis’ Table 20 years ago, about the same time loonies started weighing down Canadian pockets. The first sign for the Franciscan restaurant was a giant Loonie that Boland made to hang above the door. That’s been the price of a meal ever since.

“I’m hoping that the poor will always be with us in Parkdale,” said area MPP Cheri DiNovo who used to be a United Church minister a couple blocks away.

The west end neighbourhood should always be a place where the poor feel welcomed and part of the city, said the politician.

DiNovo was on hand for St. Francis Table’s 20th anniversary celebration, to share a meal and hand over a $1,000 cheque. Even if a lot of the real estate in Parkdale has gone upwardly mobile,  St. Francis’ Table is still vital to the neighbourhood, she said.

For Fr. John Corriveau, provincial superior of the Capuchins in central Canada, St. Francis’ Table is a shining example of what Franciscan ministry is all about.

“The centre of the Franciscan charism is not giving handouts to people,” said Corriveau. “It’s establishing a presence among the people. It’s treating them as our brothers and our sisters.”

Myron Iwasykiw started volunteering at St. Francis’ Table 10 years ago and has no intention of giving it up. He’s made too many friends to consider it.

Iwasykiw is just one of hundreds of intellectually disabled volunteers who have come to St. Francis’ Table over the years from Community Living to develop job skills and a comfort level with a working environment.

“They’re getting a lot of self-esteem out of it,” explained Katina Xilias of Community Living. “It’s a place where they feel nurtured and welcomed and respected.”

For Kevin Doran, who has been volunteering at St. Francis’ Table for seven years, the restaurant for the poor is part of his spirituality.

“Personally, I have an affinity for things associated with St. Francis,” he said.

Twenty years ago the idea was pretty simple, but Thompson and Boland were worried about whether they could sell it to the community. A coalition of churches had studied the situation in Parkdale and concluded the area lacked the kind of food service outreach to the poor that the east end had in the form of the Good Shepherd Centre and other ministries. Thompson and Boland didn’t want to simply repeat that model. They thought that, since they liked having a choice when they went to a restaurant, the poor would also want to be able to look at a menu and order a meal that suits them.

Giving people a choice helps them “maintain their sense of dignity,” said Thompson.

The Felician Sisters were the first to hop on board and financially support the Franciscan project. They were quickly followed by other religious communities.

“It  just took off,” said Thompson, who went on to work as a counsellor in hospice and palliative care after leaving the Capuchins.

After 20 years, Thompson is still impressed by what St. Francis’ Table does every day.

“When I think of an example of how the Holy Spirit acts this is what comes to mind,” he said.

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