By Dan Geringer
FRED DILGER was a big-time residential designer in Manhattan and Atlanta when, he said, "You get to the end of the rainbow and you ask, 'Is this all there is?' I wanted something more."
Seven years ago, he found that something. He suddenly gave up his career and all his worldly possessions to become a Franciscan friar in Kensington, living among and feeding the poor.
At St. Francis Inn, the core team of Franciscan friars, nuns and lay staff served 151,699 hot meals last year to the neighborhood's most desperately poor men, women and children.
"We physically keep people alive," Dilger said, cooking beef stew for the nightly dinner crowd of 400 at the inn on Kensington Avenue near Hagert Street.
"I don't think I'm going to transform everyone we serve by teaching them to play the violin," Dilger said, smiling, "and then, of course, seeing Meryl Streep play me in the movie."
It's not about Hollywood-style transformation, he said. It's about filling empty bellies.
"The world is so hard out there that I don't think I could go through what some of our guests go through and continue to soldier on," Dilger said. "But they know that starting at 4:30 every afternoon, they can come in and get a good meal.
"We don't judge. We don't proselytize. You don't have to listen to an 'Our Father' before we hand you the food."
The inn is not a soup kitchen. It's a sit-down dining room where the monks, lay staff and nightly volunteers from Catholic high schools and colleges attentively wait on the guests with warmth and friendliness.
That might be the only kindness they're shown all day, said the Rev. Michael Duffy, who has served at the inn for 27 years.
"For the poor, there is a constant battle between paying the rent and paying for food," he said.
"They literally can't afford to eat and live indoors. I talked to a woman who had been evicted seven times in two years because she chose to feed her children instead of paying the rent.
"She said she just couldn't take another eviction, so she paid the rent and came here night after night to feed her children."
Hundreds of regulars
"We have many seniors living on fixed incomes," Duffy said. "As prices go up, they get poorer. They'll eat here until they die."
Come hell or high water, St. Francis Inn has served dinner seven days a week, 365 days a year since it opened in 1979.
During the blizzard of '96, Duffy said, more than 100 people "walked here through 32 inches of snow."
The April 2012 five-alarm blaze that killed two Philadelphia firefighters raged in an abandoned York Street factory, so close to the friars' quarters on Hagert Street that Dilger remembers waking up and wondering, "Why is my room orange?"
That night, during a massive power outage, when 200 hungry poor showed up at the inn, the monks served them sandwiches by candlelight.
During the devastating ice storms of 1994 and this year, during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, during water-main breaks and other natural and unnatural disasters, the monks of St. Francis Inn put dinner on the table.
Although St. Francis Inn gets a steady supply of food from Vincent Giordano's meats, Rockland Bakery in Pennsauken and major supermarkets, there are days when Dilger must rely on faith that a key ingredient will miraculously appear.
"One day, I'm making a beef stew," he said. "I need potatoes. We don't have potatoes. So I'm wishing for potatoes.
"An hour and a half later, this farmer guy knocks on the door and says, 'I got a truck full of potatoes outside. Y'all need any?' "
Dilger laughed. "You get what you need, but not necessarily what you wish for," he said. "I wished for the potatoes to be peeled and cut. They weren't. I got to work."
Trial and error taught Dilger to tailor his dishes to his guests.
"A lot of our guests don't have a lot of teeth, so I don't do a lot of corn on the cob," he said. "I do my chili, my stews, my spaghetti.
"Some people hate mushrooms. I learned this after making spaghetti with mushrooms, then having to pick the mushrooms out of the spaghetti for guests who don't like them. I don't do spaghetti with mushrooms anymore."
Unlike Dilger, Duffy doesn't cook. Those who do shoo him out of the kitchen.
"They shout, 'Hot! Hot! Stay away!' "Duffy said, laughing.
"So I scrub pots and wash dishes. And I clean the bathrooms. Our guests are very social while they're in line waiting to use the bathroom. That's when you find out all the good gossip."
An ex-securities lawyer
Karen Pushaw had a University of Pennsylvania law degree and 10 years as a securities lawyer at Blank Rome. In 1991, she told her parents that she was giving it all up to live and work among Kensington's poor.
"They thought I was insane," Pushaw remembered with a smile. "It was more violent around here back in the '90s. It was all about crack cocaine and speed, which got people agitated.
"Between the huffing and the spoon, there was fighting inside and outside this place," she said. "We had a bouncer. I'd sit in the chapel and pray for a peaceful day."
Instead of a peaceful day, she found inner peace.
And she found that her law degree came in handy. Rummaging through the inn's files, Pushaw said, "I found deeds, car titles, a 10-year-old receipt for a cheesesteak and an old water bill labeled 'respond immediately.' "
After paying that water bill, Pushaw handled the legal red tape as the inn expanded along Kensington Avenue from a rowhouse with a four-burner stove and four plug-in coffee pots to a huge modern kitchen, a second-floor chapel and an outdoor garden for guests.
Pushaw's family still worries about her safety. Pushaw doesn't. "When the Kensington Strangler was in the news, my family asked me, 'Are you anywhere near that stalker?' I said, 'Oh, no. He's blocks away.' Well, there's a memorial to one of his victims, Nicole, right around the corner."
"Some guests come back to give us a few dollars and tell us, 'I have a year clean,' or, 'I found the spouse of my dreams.' It's very important to us when our guests don't need us anymore."
A woman sent Duffy a Christmas card, thanking him for feeding her during her two years as a drug-addicted prostitute on the streets of Kensington.
"If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead," she wrote. "You kept me alive."
Duffy reflected on the woman's words while Dilger and the team prepared the evening meal.
"She wrote that she was now recovered," Duffy said. "She said she was working and caring for her two children. She taped two dollar bills to the card to help us feed the hungry."
Dilger smiled and said: "Everything is stripped bare here. This is our family. These are people we love. We see Christ in our guests every day."
Then he and Duffy humbly welcomed their guests to the evening meal.