DETROIT, Michigan – It’s a Franciscan custom to give food – even if that’s just a simple sandwich – to anyone who comes to the door hungry.
Beloved Capuchin friar and doorkeeper Father Solanus Casey, set to be beatified Nov. 18, knew the custom well, and had a desire to feed anyone who came to the door of St. Bonaventure monastery in Detroit.
“They are hungry; get them some soup and sandwiches,” Casey would often tell his fellow friars.
The need became especially great in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. That’s when Casey had the idea to start a soup kitchen down the street from the monastery, where he could send anyone who came to the door looking for food.
“In time the lines grew to more than 2,000 people waiting for their single meal of the day. The friars knew they had to do more,” the Capuchins explain on their soup kitchen website.
To expand their ability to feed and serve people, the friars turned to the Secular Franciscans in their community. Together, they worked to gather, cook and serve meals at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which is still operating out of multiple locations in Detroit today.
The soup kitchen just down the street from the monastery is a rebuilt version of the original site founded by Casey.
Today, Alison Costello is the head chef at the soup kitchen, and she runs a tight ship. Friday, November 17 may have been the day before Casey’s beatification, but it was a bustling day at the soup kitchen just like any other.
Coney dogs were on the menu, along with mixed green salad and roasted potatoes. Once Costello got a breather, she sat down with CNA to talk about her philosophy as the head chef.
“This is a holy place, you have to treat it like a church,” Costello told CNA. So there are some rules: Don’t cuss. Dress modestly. Recycle.
A practicing Catholic herself, Costello came onto the staff of the soup kitchen about 17 years ago, “burned out” from the hectic hours of the regular restaurant industry. She was familiar with the Capuchins and saw the soup kitchen chef role as an opportunity to serve those in need.
“I knew I had to boost up the nutrition levels of the food here because most of our folks have a compromised immune system,” she said, “and I have to be culturally sensitive at the same time.”
While the guests at the soup kitchen are a diverse crowd, the majority at this particular location are African Americans, who tend to have similar genetic health problems and nutritional concerns.
“So when I started, I knew I couldn’t’ just serve brown rice, I had to serve white rice as well. Or our salad couldn’t be just iceberg, it turns out that our guests really liked the bitter greens, and so I brought in spring mix salad. Our soups started to be made from scratch, and I make purees, which they had never seen, like I make a roasted red pepper puree,” Costello said. Her puree is very popular with the guests.
She has told other chefs that it doesn’t matter “if people are paying customers or they’re sitting there smelling (badly), they deserve to eat well.”
Talk to almost anyone at the Capuchin soup kitchen, and they’ll tell you the reason they continue to come there, whether as a guest or as a volunteer, is because of the community atmosphere.
Frank Shorter, who was pouring water into vases on Friday, said he originally started volunteering at the soup kitchen as part of a probation program, but he stayed because he got “addicted to helping people” and enjoyed the friendly environment at the kitchen.
Margie Coleman is a longtime volunteer with the soup kitchen, whose husband is a parishioner at Sacred Heart parish in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit.
“I love working with the people, it’s always a good time, I’m having a blast,” Coleman told CNA.
“You never know what you’re going to run into here, and I keep learning new tips and tricks for cooking, and I’m just having a good time. It’s all about service and giving back to the people,” she added. “Fr. Solanus was all about helping his fellow man, and I feel the same way.”
Coleman’s husband Mark often works right alongside her in the kitchen. He said Casey’s example teaches us that you don’t have to be academically smart to make a difference in the world.
“I got the sense that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the closet,” because he struggled with seminary classes. “But he actually was a much more powerful light, once you kind of dug into him, which I think is a real testament to him as an individual. Just because you’re not the brightest person in the world doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful impact on the world.”
Today, the Capuchin soup kitchen not only serves food, it also provides showers to those who need them, as well as social services. It is connected to a Capuchin-run urban farm, which provides much of the produce for the kitchen.
“People should come experience it for themselves,” Costello said, “and what a community this is and what a witness the friars are. I have enjoyed every day…that I’ve been here, the camaraderie, the family, we have our family here,” she said, thinking of guests or volunteers that they’ve grown close to over the years.
Costello added that she was “honored” to follow in Casey’s footsteps at the kitchen. The quality she most admires in the friar’s legacy is his humility.
“I think Solanus would want people to know you can be an extraordinary person by doing ordinary things,” she said.