HARTFORD – On a frigid morning a couple days after Christmas 1981, La Salette Father James Donagher was walking near Immaculate Conception Church on Park Street when he saw something that terrified him, angered him and motivated him. A man lay frozen to death on the sidewalk.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years: In the posh Society Room on Pratt Street on May 5, state, city and religious dignitaries gathered, along with Father Donagher, who now lives in New Hampshire. Gov. Dannel Malloy was there. Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarro dropped by. Retired Hartford Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza sat at a table with his old friend, Father Donagher. They were there to mark the 30th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Shelter, which Father Donagher founded immediately after discovering the body.
"The most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen," recalled Father Donagher. "He was in a fetal position and encased in ice."
Ironically, the parish already had an emergency food pantry, with the theme "Send us your poor 24/7," said Father Donagher, who was pastor there 30 years ago. "People would come for food sometimes nine times a night, ring the doorbell and we fed them."
Immaculate still houses men in the former church’s basement, as it has done since it began, but now the former sanctuary is also used; about 150 men live in supportive housing in locations around the city.
With funding from the vicariate outreach program of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal and other sources, Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corp. (ICSHC), the nonprofit founded in 1990, has expanded its services to include street outreach, scattered-site supportive housing and its own housing complex across the street from the shelter, Casa de Francesco.
Jacqueline Reardon, president of Immaculate’s board of directors, told clients who were at the celebration, "You face obstacles that we cannot imagine having to face, and you have to face them on a daily basis. … You always get up and want to try again."
Gov. Malloy said, "If you have deep religious beliefs, you know that a failure to respond in such a situation would ultimately be part of the story of your life and upon which you might be judged. If you’re not deeply religious, you know that it is simply wrong to stand by and watch people suffer."
Mayor Segarra said, "As a person and a mayor who was homeless several times as a child, I think you cannot find a man that is more willing to work with our governor and our other stakeholders to make sure that we enact policies that don’t end up creating homelessness."
Bishop Rosazza accepted the Homeless Advocacy Award for his lifelong work helping the underprivileged people of Connecticut and for his support of Immaculate’s mission. He said, "You’ve made enormous progress since the early days of the shelter, founded by my good friend, Father Jim Donagher, a priest who for years dedicated himself to serve the poor in the Park Street neighborhood even before he founded the shelter."
After Father Donagher took a bow, Bishop Rosazza continued, "I also visited the basement of the church, where I spent one night about 28 years ago, so I could experience what it is to sleep in a shelter. This gave me an opportunity to interact with some of the men and listen to their stories. Of course, the men had to leave at 7 a.m. I had a rectory next door to go to."
The Rev. John Gregory Davis, founding executive director of ICSHC, said, "There never has been a reason why the richest country the world has ever known has homelessness." He said the prevailing thinking seems to be, "If you’re rich, you must be good. If you’re poor, you must be bad."
He said, "Those two ifs have kept this country from realizing its potential."
Four other people accepted awards. Shawnee Baldwin, coordinator of youth and young adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Hartford, received the Volunteer of the Year Award. Timothy Bannon, Gov. Malloy’s chief of staff, accepted the Partnership Award for his work as former president and executive director of Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA).
Juan Gerena, who was featured in the February issue of the Transcript, was named Client of the Year for the progress he has made as a shelter resident, volunteer and now employee of Casa de Francesco.
William "Bill" Allis received the Supportive Housing Client of the Year Award for overcoming obstacles and turning his life around after his release from prison in 2003.
For more information on Immaculate and its programs, call (860) 724-4823 or go to www.icshc.org