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The House of Bread

May 23, 2005

Sister Theresa Fonti was working at St. Michael's Parish in the North End of Hartford in 1980, and every day, people came to the church looking for food.

Then she met a friend, Sister Maureen Faenza, just back from working with the poor in rural Kentucky. The two Roman Catholic nuns decided to find a place to serve breakfast to Hartford's hungry. After a brief stint in a church building, they moved to a closed luncheonette next to a package store on High Street and started up with a 12-cup coffeepot and a two-slice toaster. When the building was damaged by fire, they continued serving from the back of a van.

They soon got another building, and their little venture began to grow. They called it The House of Bread. Over 25 years, it has become a remarkably successful volunteer agency - so integral to the city that it's hard to imagine downtown Hartford without it.

The soup kitchen, now on Chestnut Street after surviving another fire in an Ann Street building, serves 1,500 meals a week. The agency also runs a transitional housing program, a day shelter for the homeless, a single-room occupancy facility for homeless males, GED and pre-GED programs for mothers raising children, a Saturday mentoring program, a 27-unit affordable housing complex, a summer camp for city youngsters in Vermont, a thrift store and job training programs.

Because they were serving food, the sisters decided to train people in the culinary arts. That enterprise, undertaken in conjunction with Foodshare, began in 1999 and has produced 51 graduates, 38 of whom are employed at hotels, restaurants and institutional kitchens in Hartford and the suburbs.

The sisters have had a quarter-century of success not only because of what they do, but how they do it. They approach their demanding and sometimes heartbreaking work with respect for the people they serve and great senses of humor. Thus, they've attracted hundreds of volunteers, from students to corporate leaders and, meaningfully, former clients who have moved ahead with their lives.

Sister Maureen said the need is greater than it was in 1980, yet she worries that society is becoming hardened to the problems of the poor. She said homelessness is becoming accepted as a fact of life, something people no longer see. That is dangerous, not good for the people or the city.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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