New cafe at basilica in Baltimore is designed to encounter the poor

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Sister Samaritan of Scourged Love, right, a member of the Sisters Poor of Jesus Christ, welcomes a woman experiencing homelessness to the Sexton's Lodge Cafe April 14, 2024, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The new cafe was designed for basilica parishioners to encounter the poor who live on the streets just outside America's first cathedral. (OSV News photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — Father Brendan Fitzgerald is convinced it’s just as important to evangelize people experiencing homelessness as it is to evangelize any other person.

A big challenge at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, where the priest is rector, has been that there isn’t a place people can gather in an informal way to have those kinds of life-changing discussions.

Engaging the homeless in the faith

“A number of the homeless will come and spend time inside the church just to get away from the cold or the heat or the rain, but they don’t get engaged,” he told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Baltimore Archdiocese. “They sit in a pew for several hours and then they’ll leave, but no one’s talking to them about Christ or sharing their lives with them or inviting them into a real relationship.”

The rector hopes that will begin to change with the April 14 opening of the Sexton’s Lodge Cafe.

Getting to know the neighbors

The new cafe, erected inside a space built north of the cathedral in 1840, is meant to be a place where basilica parishioners can develop relationships with people who live on the streets just outside America’s first cathedral.

Open Friday mornings after the 7:30 a.m. Mass and Sundays after the 10:45 a.m. Mass, the cafe offers free coffee from Baltimore Coffee and Tea, along with prepackaged treats and juice boxes for children. The idea is for basilica parishioners and visitors to the historic cathedral to get to know their neighbors and their fellow Massgoers, while having meaningful conversations about faith in a warm, welcoming environment.

“If this cafe project can be a space where people who don’t ordinarily get an opportunity to hear just a little bit about the life of someone who lives in poverty,” Father Fitzgerald said, “that would be a great good.”

The Sexton’s Lodge most recently served as a gift shop and storage facility. In the past, it had also been the home of Baltimore Archbishop William D. Borders. The idea for transforming it into a cafe was inspired through the ministry of Abigail Steele, the basilica’s director of outreach. Steele had previously spent several years working in the basilica’s Source of All Hope urban missionary program that focuses on befriending people experiencing homelessness.

Support and funding for the Sexton’s Lodge Cafe

Steele had the idea of establishing a meeting place for fellowship and worked with the Given Institute to flesh out her plan. The basilica received a $20,000 grant from the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Institute for Evangelization. It also received a $60,000 grant from the Knott Foundation.

The funds were used as seed money for the program and to renovate the first floor of Sexton’s Lodge with a coffee counter, tables and religious art that includes images of people such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Mary Lange, founder of the Baltimore-based Oblate Sisters of Providence.

“It’s a low-cost program to run and we are relying on the generosity of people who believe in the program, along with people who visit and neighborhood partners,” said Maria Veres, the basilica’s director of mission advancement.

Volunteers and staff from the basilica serve as hosts, Veres said.

Father Fitzgerald said the cafe also will be used for small-group parish meetings, Bible study and the like. He would like to see it grow organically to operate on more days and perhaps include outdoor picnic areas on the basilica campus.

Reaching out to the vulnerable

The rector, who worked with Baltimore’s homeless when he was a student at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, acknowledged that not everyone understands the need for reaching out to vulnerable populations. The Gospel demands it, he said.

“It’s good for families to see the poor and to encounter the poor and to love the poor before they head back to the suburbs,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful witness to see some of the poor genuinely worship with us on Sundays. We have some who have been baptized and they participate in the liturgy.”

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori blessed the cafe April 14.

OSV News

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