NEW HAVEN – Homelessness is a problem that will never go away, says Deacon Marty O’Connor. “It was a problem; it remains a problem, and there will always be opportunities for ministry to people who are down on their luck,” he said.
Deacon O’Connor should know. For the past 28 years, he and his wife Mary have volunteered two Sundays a month to prepare meals with the St. Mary Parish soup kitchen committee (some 650 meals, if anyone is counting) for an area shelter. And they’re not even thinking about quitting.
“It gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction,” said the former New Haven fire chief, “but a sense that as a society, we could do so much more.”
Deacon O’Connor said that he first joined the committee in late 1985, at about the same time that he applied to the archdiocesan permanent diaconate program, “when we were encouraged to become involved in social justice ministry in our parishes.”
The O’Connors shared the ministry with others until about 1993, when they took it over, he said.
Other members of St. Mary Parish assisted, as did people from other parishes.
“But since I became a full-time teacher [in 1999] at the University of New Haven (UNH), we’ve relied heavily on students,” said Deacon O’Connor, who teaches criminal and fire protection law, as well as courses in public service ethics.
“It’s been a tremendous teaching moment for the students,” he said. “For many of them, it’s their first exposure to people who are down on their luck.”
Because many of the students concentrated on criminal justice at UNH, he would point out that some of the people at the shelter were on probation or had recently been released from prison. “I’d explain how this was a sign that our criminal justice system could be a lot better…that we need to do better planning for people once they are on the other side of corrections.”
He said students wondered how homelessness could be such a large issue in a medium-sized city such as New Haven or how the shelter, Immanuel Baptist Shelter, could be full.
“What they didn’t realize is that there might be 600 homeless people in and around New Haven in shelters,” said Deacon O’Connor. “And those are the people in shelters,” not the ones “under bridges or on the streets.”
The soup kitchen committee meets on the second and third Sundays of each month, and nowadays is joined by members of the Knights of Columbus Council 10705.
Typically, Mrs. O’Connor shops for the groceries during the week. Her husband arrives in the mid-afternoon on Sundays to start the process before the students and the rest of the committee arrive to do the preparation and cooking.
The entrée? “Chicken St. Mary’s,” Deacon O’Connor said with a laugh, “which is chicken and anything else we’ve got lying around.
“Actually, Mary got a recipe from The New York Times, and we’ve been cooking it for about five years,” he said. “It’s chicken with a Middle Eastern flavor to it” with cinnamon, ginger, cumin, dates, and orange juice cooked with carrots and onions and served over pasta – we were never good at cooking rice – like a stew.”
The meal is rounded out with salad, bread donated by Chabaso Bakery and often a dessert baked by a parishioner or donated by the parish.
They transport the food and serve it at the shelter, and some of the committee members stay behind to clean up. By 6:30 p.m. or so, the day is done; and either committee members go out to dinner together or the O’Connors treat the students to pizza.
“We always had a core group of people who would help,” said Mrs. O’Connor, a long-time journalist and editor at The New Haven Register, where she is better known by her byline, Mary E. O’Leary. “These were people we admired … and who became our friends over the years,” she said.
“After a while, it just became something concrete to do for people,” she said about their work on the committee. “And not just helping people, because they’re very thankful, totally appreciative,” she said.
“But you get to know people at the shelter”… and “personally, you get to be really good friends with the people you work with, the volunteers” and “we look forward to seeing them twice a month,” she reflected. “So it becomes meaningful on all levels. You get as much out of it as the people you serve.”
Deacon O’Connor agreed. “We both have a strong sense of social justice” and public service, he said, referring to Mary’s work as a journalist and his 30-year career with the New Haven Fire Department, where he served as assistant fire chief and then fire chief until 1998.
“We both lead busy lives,” he continued, “so it’s something we do together; and we look forward to it.”
The O’Connors, both of whom grew up in the Fair Haven section of the city and attended St. Francis School there, celebrated their 37th anniversary in August.
Ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1990, Deacon O’Connor also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and a law degree from the University of Connecticut. He has served as a deacon at St. Bernadette Parish for 13 years. He also is a chaplain at UNH.
Why does he continue working with the soup kitchen committee? “Matthew 25,” he answered. “‘When did you see me naked? When did you see me hungry?’
“To see the face of Christ in the people we serve.” Plus, “it’s kind of a calling,” he reflected. “You begin to realize that people need help. Christian service isn’t an adjunct to the Christian life; it’s an integral part of who we are as Christians.”