Two Nuns Launched Soup Kitchen 25 Years Ago; Today It's A Conglomerate Of Social Services
December 5, 2005
By PAT SEREMET, Courant Staff Writer
Sister Maureen Faenza and Sister Theresa Fonti are the toast of the town.
They found each other 25 years ago, and together they founded the House of Bread. Its purpose was to feed the hungry people of Hartford - at first, mostly the older men who lived in rooming houses that used to abound on Main Street just north of downtown.
Faenza had just returned to a New Britain parish after working with the poor of rural Kentucky. Fonti was working at St. Michael's Church in Hartford, where people often came looking for food.
"It was the Reaganomics of the '80s," Fonti said. "People were being displaced and homelessness had become a reality."
They decided to do what they could to fill the need, and so they went to a priest in a social services organization called the Propagation of the Faith who gave them $3,000 to set up their first House of Bread. They found a luncheonette - with no kitchen counter - on High Street, and they fed the people who came in with a 12-cup coffeepot and a two-slice toaster. Doughnuts were served on special occasions.
"We were young and energetic," Faenza said.
"And we had a lot of passion," Fonti added.
Faenza is 59 and Fonti is 67, so they've got a few years on them since their 30s and 40s, but the energy and passion are still there.
Like bakers who have lovingly, painstakingly kneaded their dough, they've watched their little House of Bread rise and expand.
They now serve 200 meals a day in their soup kitchen on Chestnut Street. The sisters also run a transitional housing program, a day shelter for the homeless, a single-room facility for homeless men, GED programs for mothers, a Saturday mentoring program, an affordable housing complex, a summer camp for Hartford children in Vermont, a thrift store and job-training programs.
The day of our visit to what they humorously describe as their "corporate headquarters" on Main Street, a babysitting service was in play. Preschoolers scamper around slides and play kitchen as Christmas music plays. Pam Scott, wife of Larry Gold, president and CEO of Connecticut Children's Medical Center, one of the volunteers, gently rocked a sleeping baby, and gave a thumbs up, adding in a whisper, "House of Bread is the best."
The House of Bread relies heavily on such volunteers, and there is a strong allegiance.
"We've had volunteers like the ladies in our thrift shop who've been here 17 years," Faenza said. "There's Joan Dahlberg who's been coming from the Cape for 18 years, visiting her elderly parents, and every Thursday afternoon she comes here to volunteer. And there's Gillie Costa, 87, who feels her week isn't complete if she doesn't come to help out."
And, this may be the House of Bread, but it's not always a picnic.
"Many of our clients have issues of addiction," Fonti said. "They've stunted their growth and the littlest things can upset them. They can be like kids, saying that the other guy got a bigger piece of cake or their tea isn't hot enough."
"You have your ups and downs," Faenza said. "The other day a man came in to see me who had been in our supportive living, he had gone to our substance abuse counseling, and he said, 'Sister, it's been eight years that I've been sober. I'm a licensed plumber and married.'
"Those are the stories that keep us going," Fonti said.
The sisters have 17 people on staff, including chef Sebastian Kolodziej, who supplies very balanced meals every day, getting a lot of food from Foodshare. But they are always in need of donations and volunteers.
And because of Hurricane Katrina and the extraordinary needs of its victims in the south, local donations are down considerably.
For people who want to volunteer time, the sisters have something for everyone, be it in the kitchen, babysitting or tutoring, even painting one of their facilities.
They also need items for the kitchen such as plastic ware, paper goods, dish detergent, nine-gallon trash bags. For the day shelter they need laundry detergent, socks and T-shirts. Games and toys are welcome for the children.
"People want to give classy things," Fonti said, but it's the nuts and bolts of everyday living that are paramount.
Just that day, Fonti was telling Faenza that the clothes washer in the shelter had broken and they had to buy a new one.
The sisters never dreamed when they started the House of Bread that they'd still be providing such services 25 years later.
"It's unfortunate that these issues have not gone away," Fonti said. "But we're fortunate to still be able to do this work. It's the stories of families that give you new energy. We're their station where they hang out, a little community they've established."
And they'll continue, Faenza said, "unless we get too cranky or too old."