Archdiocese nixes longtime food charity in Downtown Eastside

Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement ended their mission in May

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver has abruptly terminated a charitable service legendary for long, daily lineups in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.

A small, aging order of nuns ran the popular food and clothing service since 1926 in a mission facing Oppenheimer Park. The Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement sold the historic building to the archdiocese last year after determining the order no longer had the resources to carry on.

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The archdiocese announced the departure of the New York-based Franciscan Sisters in a news release last May but signalled the archdiocese would find a way to continue the services provided by the order.

The Sisters provide food and clothing in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, serving more than 500 people a day at 385 East Cordova St., said the May archdiocese news release. The archdiocese will ensure that the services currently provided by the Sisters will continue.

Vancouver news reports subsequently focused on the heroic, enduring service of the Franciscans, rather than the end of a vital food service, noting the archdiocese commitment to find a way to continue the service. CBC news ran a story noting that the archdiocese had indicated another order of nuns moving into the mission, the Missionaries of Charity, would continue the work of the departing Franciscans.

But a former mission advisory board member, who asked to remain anonymous, says the closure plan has been in the works for months. He said the clothing service stopped months ago and the crews of women making sandwiches for the mission were told their services were no longer needed weeks ago. No mention was made of a recall. The board advising the Franciscan Sisters was dismissed in April after being told that the service would be transferred to a new order of nuns.

Archdiocese director of communications Paul Schratz released a statement Aug. 18 noting that the May archdiocese news release has been misinterpreted.

In the Archbishops May 8 letter, the archdiocese did not say exactly what would follow in the wake of the Sisters departure because neither we nor anyone else knew then or would make such an assumption. We said we would ensure the services provided by the Sisters are continued.

Archdiocese administrator Rob Mascitti said the assumption that the Missionaries of Charity would carry on the work of the departing Franciscan order was wrong. He said the archdiocese is currently in talks with the new order but no determination has been made as to what kind of service they will provide in connection with the mission.

Schratz said the archdioceses focus after learning the Franciscan nuns were leaving has been on two key areas: Making sure the transition doesnt leave anyone unserved and honouring the Sisters for their tremendous service.

City of Vancouver homeless advocate Judy Graves said she was appalled. Of course its leaving people unserved, she said in an Aug. 21 interview. People dont line up in wheel chairs and crutches for nothing.

Graves said the loss of the service would have immediate impact since other food services are running at capacity. Graves, a former member of the citys temporary Emergency Homeless Action Team, was unaware of the service closure.

Area service providers adjacent to the mission and homeless persons contacted in the area say the missions take-out variety of food service was a life-line for hundreds of homeless people suffering from anxiety disorders and unable to access sit-down meals offered by other key food providers in the area.

Graves says the meals provided by the mission were of a higher food value than meals offered elsewhere to the hungry. She said the Franciscan Sisters standard was consistently high, a quality above anything offered elsewhere.

Staff at the community centre in Oppenheimer Park said the loss of the food service has left many homeless confused and worried, many still expecting the service to continue. A steady stream of men continued to peer into the closed door of the mission last week. There is no sign on the door indicating a closure or directing the hungry to another service.

Keela Keeping, senior public relations specialist for the Union Gospel Mission located a block away from the mission, said last week that Union Gospel staff did not report longer than usual lineups though she said the closure coincided with the issuance of welfare cheques when food service lines are slowest. Keeping said the Union Gospel Missions sit-down lunch and dinner service is routinely filled to capacity.

Staff at the Resource and Lifeskills Centre near the Mission who provided identification for some 20 to 30 homeless residents referred to them daily by the Franciscan Sisters free clothing service say they are swamped with folks asking about the loss of the food service.

A volunteer who worked for six years for the Sisters free clothing service says he was repeatedly told no other agency in the area offered free clothing. And he said the service was critical since residences in the area often have no secure lock up areas for valuables and men would arrive at the Mission without shoes or shirts on a regular basis.

Schratz said the Archdiocese has been monitoring food services in the area and finds that the mission closure has not led to an overflow at other services.

Were now in dialogue with all the downtown charities, government agencies and other potential partners to see what exactly is the best way for the Church to foster better relationships and build more fellowship in this neighbourhood.

Archdiocese officials refused to comment on speculation the closure of the mission charitable services is tied to the pending sale of the John Paul II Pastoral Centre at 150 Robson St.

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