A half dozen staff at St. Andre Bessette Parish in Portland’s Old Town are maintaining one of the city’s busiest ministries to people who’ve hit hard times.

In addition to the regular homeless guests, the church at Northwest 6th Avenue and Burnside is seeing large groups of new people. Monica Hofstetter, finance and facilities director, said those seeking food, clothing and other aid are Portlanders who have lost jobs or who have found smaller street ministries shut down during the coronavirus pandemic.

State records show that the number of unemployed workers in Oregon is moving toward 400,000. That’s more than twice the number during the economic downturn of 2008.

“I feel like there is a lot more anxiety in the air,” said Hofstetter. “I can see it in the people on the streets more than ever. It’s uncertainty. People out front say not many people are helping. It’s so overwhelming that it’s kind of shocking.”

Busy St. André Bessette Parish usually has a dozen or more volunteers helping each morning. In normal times, guests can come inside for hot coffee, breakfast, quiet time, counseling, clothing and attention to hygiene.

But this is no normal time. The parish told volunteers, many of whom are older, to stay away for their own safety. The ministry now takes place through the church door with six parish staff doing the work.

Staff assemble hygiene kits and food boxes. Central Catholic students and faculty pack sack lunches and send them across town to the parish. Items get handed out at the church entrance facing Burnside Street, where a line forms each morning.

The ministry at the door began in March. But the parish had to take a respite from all activity for part of April after Hofstetter came down with what her doctor believes was COVID-19. All parish staff isolated themselves because they had been exposed to her.

Meanwhile, with no public Mass and no offertory, income plummeted.

“The funding was just gone,” Hofstetter said. Holy Cross Father Tom Gaughan, the pastor, had to lay off staff temporarily.

Hofstetter returned to health after 10 days of fever, and no one else got sick. She began applying for grants, including the federal Payroll Protection Program, which came through on the second round.  

“I was so excited I just started crying,” said Hofstetter.

Staff returned, and the ministry at the door resumed May 11.

“There is a huge need right now,” said Hofstetter. “We have been serving for 100 years. We survived wars and the Great Depression. We have to find a way to do this. The whole purpose of our mission is to be at the front door doing this.”

Meanwhile, the parish livestreams its Mass each day of the week on Facebook Live. In an April 26 homily, Father Gaughan called the Easter season a time for the parish to refocus on its mission, which gives people not only life’s material necessities, but hope.

“Our loving service of others gives people a loving encounter of Christ through us,” he said.

To help

St. André Bessette welcomes monetary donations mailed to the parish — 601 W Burnside St., Portland 97209 — or posted at the website, saintandrebessettepdx.org. But to reduce exposure to the virus, the parish is not taking donations of anything at the door from the general public. Hofstetter said donors are welcome to order new socks, underwear and sleeping bags and have the items delivered to the parish.