Pier Giorgio Agape Ministry feeds, clothes homeless, those in need

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith



About the Ministry

The Pier Giorgio Agape Ministry at the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater:

Frassati supper: A hot meal prepared by volunteers in the lower hall on Thursdays. Doors open at 4:45 p.m.

Frassati closet: Every third Thursday during the Frassati supper there is a clothing distribution.

Frassati cupboard: Volunteers sort and distribute donated food between 1 and 2 p.m. Fridays in the lower hall.

Contact: 360-693-3052 for more information and to ask about volunteering.

Did You Know?

Proto means first. The Proto-Cathedral of Saint James the Greater was the first Catholic church in Vancouver and is considered the birthplace of Catholicism in the Pacific Northwest. It’s part of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

People lined up from the lower hall of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater to the sidewalk, waiting to get inside for a hot meal.

The imposing Catholic church in downtown Vancouver hosts its Pier Giorgio Agape Ministry twice weekly. There’s a food pantry on Fridays, and every Thursday — even on Thanksgiving Day — a dinner. On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the menu was chicken shepherd’s pie, broccoli salad, butternut squash and bread with butter, along with an assortment of desserts.

“My philosophy is, if I wouldn’t serve it at home, I wouldn’t serve it here,” said Greg Repman, one of the chefs.

All of the guests sit down and are waited on by volunteers like patrons at a restaurant. Many are homeless. Some are not.

David Welsh was in Esther Short Park one day when someone told him they just ate an exquisite meal at the Proto-Cathedral, so he went to see what all the fuss was about.

The food is excellent and healthy, Welsh said, recalling an especially delectable lasagna quiche he once had.

“I have acid reflux, so I have to be careful what I eat,” he said.

Welsh said he’s been homeless since 1964 and spends time recycling cans. Years ago, his piano-playing skills made him a viral sensation known as Homeless Mozart. But, here he is, still living on the streets.

“Without this food, I’d be dumpster diving,” he said. “It’s the real compassion I find more motivating than anything else. These people wouldn’t be serving us food if they didn’t have compassion in their heads and their hearts.”

Sandy Campanario, the church’s pastoral assistant for administration and stewardship, said more men than women take advantage of the church’s ministry. And, although it attracts volunteers from the church and other Catholic parishes, she said it’s turned out to be a ministry for “anyone with a good heart,” Catholic or not. Support comes from volunteers, tithing and food donations from the Clark County Food Bank and Chuck’s Produce. A note on the church bulletin board lists what types of food and closet items are needed.

“The only real cost to us is our kitchen gets used a lot,” Campanario said.

Thanks to a donation, it’ll be remodeled next year.

Surrounded by those in need

The Rev. W.R. Harris once took on a cynical view of the homeless. That changed after he was assigned to the Proto-Cathedral and the archbishop told him to start an outreach ministry at the downtown parish.

“We’re surrounded in many ways by those in need,” Harris said.

He prayed to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati about how to make that happen, and said his prayers were later answered when some visiting priests suggested a weekly dinner for those in need. So, that is why the ministry is called the Pier Giorgio Agape Ministry. (Agape is a Greek word referring to unconditional love and charity.)

In fact, the Monday before it started, a surprise vestibule package arrived — an image of Frassati done by an artist that used to be Harris’ housekeeper.

Frassati was born in 1901 in Turin, Italy, the son of a wealthy newspaper owner. He was outdoorsy, handsome and a devout Catholic. But, he lived simply, devoted time to St. Vincent de Paul and gave away everything he had to those in need. He would often be late to dinner because he gave his bus fare away and had to run home.

Still, his parents didn’t know about his good deeds until he died from polio at age 24 and hundreds of people showed up at his funeral to pay their respects. Beatified by St. John Paul II in 1990, it’s possible that Frassati will eventually be canonized and become a saint.

There were a handful of people who showed up to the Proto-Cathedral’s first Frassati supper on Dec. 13, 2012.

“And it has happened every Thursday since then without fail,” Harris said.

Nowadays, nearly five years later, the Pier Giorgio Agape Ministry can peak at 250 people on particularly busy nights.

Saratoga Roberts was all smiles as she ate dinner and described why she comes to the Proto-Cathedral on Thursdays.

“I like the fellowship,” the 38-year-old said.

On the third Thursday of the month, there is a clothing closet after dinner. Everyone who comes to the clothing closet gets a personal shopper who goes through the clothing with them, locating the right styles and sizes. Cold-weather clothes, backpacks and shoes are particularly sought after items.

Tana Johnson, 54, was on the lookout for a warm jacket and eventually found a plaid one with a hood that fit.

“This’ll do,” she said.

She lives out of her Chevy Blazer and has been homeless off and on for nine years. She started visiting the cathedral after hearing about the ministry through Share.

Jennifer Klein, 42, started coming here when she was homeless, and she’s since started turning her life around. She secured an apartment downtown and a part-time job with Share that could turn full time. With her limited income, the ministry is a big help, especially toward the end of the month when food stamps run out.

She brought her 10-year-old daughter, Keira Klein, who happily sifted through the clothes with her friend and selected a new backpack. Jennifer Klein teared up describing how such a simple thing can mean so much when you’re homeless. Dry clothes. Shoes without holes in them. A hot meal. A warm place to just be for the evening.

“When it’s raining like this, people will stay until the last possible minute,” Campanario said, motioning to the evening’s downpour.

‘Radiate his light’

Last month, two sisters from Missionaries of Charity visited the Proto-Cathedral. They visited the men’s homeless shelter down the street and attended the Frassati supper. There was something about seeing the sisters wearing those familiar white and blue habits; people opened up, telling the women their stories and struggles, asking for their prayers.

Someone even said, ‘Is that Mother Teresa? I thought she was dead.’

Yes, Mother Teresa died in 1997, but Missionaries of Charity continues.

The Proto-Cathedral recently held a novena, a Roman Catholic period of prayer that lasted for nine masses in which the congregation prayed to bring the Missionaries of Charity to Vancouver.

The prayer recited each Mass to Mother Teresa included these lines: “Help us to stay with people who are suffering as you did. So that we may have eyes to see the sick, elderly and dying and give us helpful hands to care for them. St. Teresa, as you loved and served Jesus through your work upon Earth, we humbly as that you continue your work in heaven and intercede for us to bring your spiritual daughters, the Missionaries of Charity, to the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater. May they teach us to allow Jesus to fill us so completely that our lives may also radiate his light and love to others.”

With the help of the sisters, the Proto-Cathedral hopes to expand its ministry and do more for those in need.