Updated: Jan 4
Last weekend I left New York City behind for Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore. Atlantic City is reminiscent of Time Square but with an oddly small-town feel. Although the casinos were not my destination, there is no avoiding them. My room at St. Michael’s Convent offers a perfect view of Ceasar’s Palace and Bally’s. Addiction, prostitution, and homelessness are prevalent and pervasive in Atlantic City, which made the discernment to respond to Bishop Sullivan’s invitation to open a convent an easy yes. Our sisters live two and half blocks from the boardwalk and the beach. This August will be our fourth anniversary of opening our doors in the notorious gambling town in the Camden Diocese.
Our sisters have an expansive outreach to the very poor there—right from the front door of the convent, and also through our “Fr. Benedict House” drop-in center, but this winter we were given the opportunity to go a step further in our ministry by offering shelter to the homeless.
When the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below, living on the street goes from simply miserable to life-threatening, and therefore, extra effort is made by the city and the county to provide shelter for the homeless on those dangerously cold nights. This winter, the added complication of the need to “social distance” by six feet reduced the available shelter space on Code Blue (32° or below) nights. With the coronavirus regulations, more space was needed if the homeless were going to find shelter on deadly cold nights.
A few steps from the backdoor of St. Michael Convent, which is adjacent to St. Michael’s Church, is the church hall—a big, beautiful, warm, clean, empty space, complete with heat, restrooms, and an industrial kitchen. With the agreement and cooperation of the pastor, and with all the approvals, permits, and permissions needed from the various authorities, the sisters were eager to venture into to this new realm of ministry, this necessary work of mercy.
Of course, there were cots to be purchased, and pillows, blankets and sheets, volunteers to be organized, meals to be planned, safety to consider, and all the thousands of details that could either serve as obstacles to moving forward, or serve as opportunities to learn a new frontier of service.
With air purifiers in place and permits signed, the doors of our code blue shelter (which, between us, we refer to as St. Joseph’s Shelter) were open for the first time on January 6th and the 32 people waiting outside came in out of the cold to a hot meal, and a warm, dry place to sleep. The sisters tell me that by 8:30 pm that first night, our 32 guests were asleep like babies with chant music softly playing in the background. The sisters, for their part were sitting up all night like new mothers, keeping watch and listening for every stir, on the ready to offer a second blanket or a glass of water.
Last weekend I had my first chance to help out, and I could not help but think of our beloved, and greatly missed †Fr. Benedict who used to love to quote St. Vincent DePaul who said, “If you love the poor, your life will be filled with sunlight...”
When I was there last weekend, Atlantic City was cold - below 32°- with sleeting rain and yet, I can assure you, it was filled with light.
Mother Clare, CFR