The God Squad

Posted: March 26, 2014

MASS HAD just ended at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Center City when Friar John Daya, in his Franciscan brown robe, invited a young man to the altar.

Short of stature, but big of heart, the young man told the congregation about his work at St. Joan of Arc in hard-times Harrowgate, a section of Kensington. That's where he spends his mornings, helping to feed the poor by working in a "humble" food pantry, he said.

He had me at "humble," a walnut within a shell of piety. It's a word that catches the ear and the heart in a culture too-often drowning in Trumpian braggadocio.

As parishioners filed toward the street, I approached the young Capuchin-Franciscan brother and asked him to tell me his story, the story of the pantry and the story of St. Joan.

This is that story.

California born and bred, Filippino-American Andrew Corriente, 25, came east to earn a bachelor's degree in cinema studies at New York University in 2010. Although many slide sideways during college, Andrew felt a swelling spirituality within him.

"I guess all along I knew God was calling me," he told me with a sheepish smile. "I didn't think it would be this soon."

The pantry is just five rows of steel shelving in a small storeroom in what was the parish house until 2013, when St. Joan was merged into Holy Innocents parish. St. Joan is now a pastor-less "worship site," which is what the Philadelphia Archdiocese calls it. Sister Linda Lukiewski calls it a "mission," because "it sounds more friendly."

A cyclone fence embraces the lawn of St. Joan, on the corner of Frankford and Atlantic, and there's not a trace of graffiti. Sister Linda had sneakers removed from the overhead lines outside because they didn't look "respectful."

She has been at St. Joan for three years. She now keeps it afloat single-handedly, with a little help from her friends, including Andrew and Brother Andre Repucci, 35, a handsome 6-footer.

They form a trinity. The God Squad.

Most of the food comes from the Archdiocese and SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange), a local food bank, both of which deliver. Food from other sources - schools, food drives, produce vendors - must be picked up, but each call for a pickup is a blessing.

The number of people helped is, well, humble.

The pantry serves 70 households once a month, about 200 people. Each family gets six cans of whatever is on hand, Andrew said, plus a carbohydrate (such as pasta or rice), and, if available, produce and a protein, such as chicken.

To me, six cans - and they are not big cans - plus a few extras is meager.

To Andrew, it is six cans more than the 70 families would otherwise see. Through his faith, Andrew sees glasses as half-full.

When the pantry chores are done, Andrew and Andre may join Sister Linda for home visits or cleaning up the area.

The religious brothers teach English to immigrants who know fluency is the ladder of success. While I was there, Mateo Vasconcelos showed up for class. He is Brazilian, a Portuguese speaker who is diligent, according to Andrew. Students are charged $10 tuition, just to give them skin in the game.

Andre, whose father is Italian-American and mother is Thai, is a graduate of Youngstown State University, where he earned a business degree. He then went into the Air Force, where he was a computer programmer, then spent a couple of years in Thailand acting in a sitcom.

He started to hear the call in 2004. He began praying, saying the rosary, searching his soul. The idea of "living simply to serve the poor and empower others" became irresistible, he said.

After finishing daily chores at St. Joan, Andrew and Andre drive to collect two other brothers who are working in other ministries around town. They return to their West Philadelphia friary for a couple of hours of free time, followed by dinner, Franciscan instruction and prayer. Each day begins and ends with prayer.

Andre and Andrew banter like fraternity brothers, but they are Capuchin-Franciscan brothers and in May they leave for their yearlong novitiate, secluded from society. That is designed to develop a relationship with God and to determine "Is this really what you want to do?" said Andrew.

If the answer is "yes," it's off to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to study for six years to become a priest.

When they leave to heed God's call, the hungry in Harrowgate will remain in their prayers.


Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky



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