Saint Anthony’s Shelter For Renewal: A refuge from the rough streets of the South Bronx

By Michael Kearney

It was snowy and cold outside as I made my way down third avenue in the South Bronx. I was heading towards Saint Anthony’s Shelter for Renewal, a homeless shelter for men, run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. At the time, I was living down on 145th Street as a live-in volunteer at another men’s shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity. After  living in this rough neighborhood in the South Bronx for only a week I started wondering why I had made the decision to come here. I was so out of place.  A few minutes down the road I saw so many people out on the street with no shelter or food. The most troubling thing to see though was all of the  people who had passed out from drinking or taking drugs. It was immediately apparent to me that there was a large amount of mental illness and drug addiction in the Bronx.  I had been on mission trips to India and done a decent amount of work with the poor so seeing intense poverty was not new to me, but I was shocked to be seeing this in my own country. This was a different kind of poverty. There was a great loneliness that I saw within these people. They had no food, money or shelter and it seemed that they had been abandoned by everyone in their lives.  In the back of my mind I knew that poverty existed here in the US but I had never encountered poverty like this on American soil. Let alone living around it. It was depressing and honestly seemed like such a miserable place. 

  When I arrived at the Shelter I was  welcomed in by Father Mark Mary, a Franciscan priest. He had invited me over  to meet some of the guys and check out the shelter. At the time, I was pursuing photography and I was interested in doing some work for the friars. I joined the missionaries at the shelter for holy hour. Once 6 PM came around we filed out of the chapel and headed downstairs to start the evening intake process. The process included breathalyzing the men and searching their belongings. One of the big rules that the shelter upheld was that the men had to turn their phones in during the intake, so  I helped one of the Missionaries named Dan to plug the men’s phones in. Once we had finished this process it was time for dinner.

As dinner began, I was shocked by the warmth of the atmosphere in the dining room. It was a very clean and well ordered dining hall that had three large, nicely furnished wooden tables. In total there were 30 men, a few friars, several cooks and about eight missionaries. Everyone was laughing and talking. While we were eating, random men who were living in the shelter were introducing themselves to me; asking me where I was from, what my name was and why I was in the Bronx. I was so humbled and overjoyed to be there. Everyone was so happy and hopeful. The food Jimmy (our cook) made was phenomenal and it was great hearing some of the mens  stories as I sat and ate with them. As we were eating, all of  the lights in the room turned off and one of the missionaries proceeded into the room with a birthday cake with candles lit. The room exploded into cheers and singing “happy birthday to you” etc. It was one of the guests’ birthdays. After he blew the candles out, Fr. Mark- Mary said a prayer over him asking for blessings upon him. . Everyone in the room extended their hands and prayed for him. It was a moment that struck me so deep. The contrast of walking out on the streets and seeing so many people who were so alone and broken made the South Bronx seem hopeless.  But here I just looked around this room and saw all of these grown men, all from different backgrounds, different struggles praying together as brothers. Amidst all of their struggles, addictions, wounds, and loneliness I couldn’t help but think that maybe for the first time in a long time, they were experiencing peace and refuge from the streets because of the warmth of this place. This one experience showed me that Saint Anthony’s Shelter truly did bring renewal to these men’s lives.