Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

abes tent-454_feb11Joan Pirtel, chairman of the Abraham’s Tent hospitality program for St. Mary Parish in Branford, talks over dinner recently with two men who are participating in the program. (Photo by Mary Chalupsky)

BRANFORD – Despite frigid January temperatures outside, members of St. Mary Parish welcomed 12 men from Columbus House with hugs and applause as they arrived at the parish center on Jan. 10 for a week of homecooked dinners, fellowship, overnight accommodations and breakfast the next morning.

They were part of Abraham’s Tent – a program initiated last year by Columbus House homeless shelter in conjunction with the New Haven-based Interfaith Cooperative Ministries Inc. to address the overflow of shelters during the cold winter months.

The program seeks area congregations to take turns feeding and housing homeless men for one week, from November to March, as a means of easing the burden of overcrowding when temperatures force those who are homeless into shelters.

"This program is a blessing," said Kent, a college graduate who lost his marriage, apartment and job as a graphic artist as a result of depression and alcohol abuse.

"I love it," said Shawn, who lost his job. "The people are good to us. Plus, I’m not worried. I have faith."

But, judging from the conversation and the 130 parishioners who volunteered to help, it was hard to determine who was really benefiting from the program.

"Our people have just come out in droves," said Ronald Shea, business manager for the parish. "I’ve been here six and a half years, and we’ve had people volunteer who have never been involved before. It’s been a blessing for the parish."

Parishioner John DePalma was among those benefiting. "I’m paying back," he said. "I have four children, six grandchildren, and a great wife; and it’s an opportunity to be able to give back by helping out."

Joan Pirtel, chairman of the project, was also enthusiastic. "It’s wonderful, very heartwarming," she said. "It makes you really understand what you have and don’t appreciate on a daily basis. This is a program that really needs to be promoted so that other churches can get involved."

The men at St. Mary’s were prescreened for Abraham’s Tent by Columbus House and rotate to a different house of worship each week. Ascension Parish plans to host the men Feb. 14-20. Ascension also took part last year.

Columbus House offered a training program to volunteers at which they were encouraged to be welcoming, engage in positive conversation and treat the men with reverence and respect.

"We provide food and housing, and the men have been very respectful and appreciative," said Janyce Gilman, a retired social worker who originally brought the idea to the parish council for approval. "But the one thing they tell me they enjoy the most is the conversation with people."

Columbus House, which has been providing shelter to homeless people in New Haven for 28 years, currently serves 80 to 90 people, and serves an additional 100 men in an overflow facility, according to Alison Cunningham, executive director.

Abraham’s Tent was developed to "take off the pressure" of providing shelter during the cold winter months by reaching out to interfaith congregations, she said.

"It’s been fabulous on so many levels," she said about the program, which they hope to expand to 24 men next year. "It’s such a big help to us, and we’re so grateful the guys last night had a place to go.

"But another surprise is the volunteers, one of whom said, ‘Thank you so much for letting us do this,’" she relayed. "That’s really incredible when volunteers have that kind of experience."

To prepare for the week, St. Mary parishioners, including members of the youth group, organized three committees that were responsible for food, entertainment and housing. Four people were scheduled to remain at the parish center overnight, and breakfast and a lunch were provided in the morning before the men left to go to their jobs during the day.

"I think Abraham’s Tent has just been a tremendous program for us," said Sister Carolyn Severino, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the parish’s coordinator for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program.

"It’s tremendous, beautiful work," she said, "and the wonderful part is to see all the people who volunteer."