Joe looks over a coat in the St. André Bessette clothing room.
Joe looks over a coat in the St. André Bessette clothing room.

Paul Farrow, a retired Fred Meyer retail executive, once had a rugged opinion of people who are homeless. He dealt with shoplifters.

Now that he volunteers at St. André Bessette Parish on West Burnside Street, Farrow knows better. 

Farrow, who attends St. Henry Parish in Gresham and St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, is glad homeless Portlanders can escape the hubbub of the streets to enjoy themselves in a peaceful place. At St. André Bessette, he explained, they get both physical and spiritual nourishment.

St. André Bessette Parish started in 1919 as the Downtown Chapel. At various locations, it has long sponsored a drop-in room for people down on their luck, especially during the Great Depression. The Jesuits ran it and then the Congregation of Holy Cross stepped in about 30 years ago.

For the past seven years, the parish has been named after a French Canadian Holy Cross brother who was largely uneducated but became a hero of the spiritual life and was associated with healings. Aptly, Brother André was a porter, or doorman.

Five days per week, the church’s red doors open at 9:30 a.m. and homeless guests enter for hot coffee, warm food, conversation and, if desired, quiet.

One regular volunteer is the shepherd of western Oregon’s Catholics.

“I really needed hands-on work with the poor and homeless,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample, who provides hot cups of coffee to guests. “It’s brought home the humanity of the people here.” The archbishop’s daily commute brings him down Burnside Street, so he sees the homeless community every day and now feels he is in relationship with them.

Tom Streckert, a retired teacher who attends St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland, comes two days per week and specializes in washing dishes.

“It’s faith into action,” said Streckert, fitting coffee cups into a rack. He points to a drawing on the wall showing Jesus dwelling with the poor.

“This is a place where we encounter people, hear their voices, listen to their difficulties and aspirations,” Streckert said. “They grow in faith, too. It’s a heroic faith — every day.”

Many ministries have spun off from the parish, including housing for low-income people. But the bread-and-butter here, almost literally, is the morning hospitality. This time of year, the parish is a refuge from cold and wet.

The sessions are highly organized but relaxed. Volunteers, as many as 20 per day, sit for prayer and reflection before guests enter.

“We thank you for bringing this community together to serve people as we can in every moment,” Holy Cross Brother Joe DeAgostino, pastoral associate of the parish, prayed on a recent morning.

Every volunteer has a well-defined job, whether it’s spooning eggs, helping with art projects or monitoring action in the hallway. The policies are firm — no booze, no drugs, no violence.

Holy Names Sister Linda Patrick, who served for decades at St. Mary’s Academy, is a steady volunteer. “We see people every day who are in  cages — addiction and mental illness,” Sister Linda said as she prepared to hand pastries to hungry guests. “It stretches me. This is where Jesus would be.”

Larry Hill has volunteered at St. André Bessette for more than four years. He once was on the other end of service. “I have been in need and people where there for me,” he said. “Now I want to be there for them.”

Upstairs in the 1930s building are coffee, food, books and tables for sitting. Downstairs are a clothing closet and art room. On certain days, homeless people can take off their shoes and get their feet washed and cared for. Street life is tough on the toes.

Parishioner Patrick Meegan, retired from the food service industry, welcomes guests in the hallway. “Volunteering here has opened me to the mission of Christ and the church to be of service to people in need,” Meegan said.

Lilian Vasquez graduated from the University of California at Berkeley last year. She signed on for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and was posted at St. André Bessette. “It’s taught me to be open to ambiguity and change,” Vasquez said as a man came to her seeking a new backpack.

The parish provides for more than 500 guests per week. Donations keep the hospitality flowing. Just providing all that coffee costs more than $4,000 per year. There also are unplanned expenses, like $9,000 for an 88-year-old backwater valve or $2,500 for a vandalized gas meter.

Jan Noethe has been volunteering since she moved from Florida eight years ago. She sums up her reasons pithily: “Inspiration.”

“These people give me more than I can possibly give them,” said Cheri Dodge, a volunteer from Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland. 

In the hallway of the drop-in center, guests can write prayer intentions and drop them into a box. They offer sweet intercessions for others and implore God to restore their own lives. Many visitors pluck a free rosary from a basket nearby.

Come 12:05 p.m., everyone is invited for Mass along with workers from high rises downtown.

Rosemary Werring, a member of St. André Bessette, calls her parish “a good place with good people.” Werring, a retired nurse, recognizes that the street is a dangerous place with many vivid characters — hilarious, angry, generous, clingy, zany and otherwise.

“They are quite a crew,” said Werring, tenderness in her voice.

Robin Rodrigues, another retired nurse and a member of St. Ignatius Parish, has volunteered for 18 months. “It makes me realize there is a lot of need for love and dignity,” she said.

A future nurse, Annie Voegele, has been volunteering at St. André Bessette throughout her four-year career at the University of Portland.

“Every time I come here, it re-centers my mission,” said Voegele, who will graduate this spring with a nursing degree. “It’s like a holy mystery.”