Pandemic brings ‘a very different kind of Church’ to London’s homeless
London, England, May 5, 2020 / 09:00 am MT (CNA).- A parish in London’s West End is offering the homeless adoration, access to sacraments, and the rosary — along with food provided by a five-star restaurant.
St. Patrick’s Church in Soho, an area known for its nightlife and red-light district, is offering a remarkable ministry to the homeless as the capital struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Pastor Fr. Alexander Sherbrooke said he had “a strong sense that the Holy Spirit is literally building a church on the streets” in response to the crisis.
When the city began to shut down in mid-March, Westminster City Council turned to Sherbrooke, who has overseen daily outreach to the homeless since he arrived in the parish in 2001.
He told CNA that the council had asked St. Patrick’s to increase its provision of food to the homeless significantly while it tried to house those living on the streets.
The parish, founded in 1792, had previously fed the homeless in its parish center. But after Catholic churches across the country were ordered to close because of the virus, St. Patrick’s was forced to improvise. It began serving the homeless food on its doorstep twice a day, Monday through Sunday.
“On most days we are providing up to 320 meals,” Sherbrooke explained. “On average, we probably see 220 people a day, some of whom come for both breakfast and dinner.”
Hot food is supplied by the Connaught Hotel, a five-star restaurant in London’s affluent Mayfair district, as well as by Wiltons Restaurant in Jermyn Street. The Pret a Manger chain provides sandwiches.
“It’s a very sophisticated operation and we fully intend to be diligent in preserving social distancing, personal hygiene, food hygiene, etc,” the priest said. “We have a good number of volunteers. We also continue to provide a shower and lavatory facility.”
Sherbrooke explained that the homeless in the West End live off the footfall generated by local businesses, restaurants and theaters.
“There is none of that now,” he said. “It’s amazingly empty and can be quite intimidating, particularly at nighttime.”
”The West End has many who are alcohol and drug dependent and without their normal source of income, this can create a volatile situation. Police are very present, but the West End is very inhospitable, at times threatening and not very pleasant.”
“I’ve been in the parish for some 17 years, throughout which much of my time has been spent in pastoral care for those who are needy. But nothing has really prepared me for where we are at the moment.”
Volunteers at St. Patrick’s are determined to relieve spiritual as well as physical deprivation. As food is distributed, they pray before the Blessed Sacrament in a nearby adoration tent, while observing social distancing. Sherbrooke is available for visitors seeking a sacramental encounter, sitting at a safe distance and behind a white sheet. There is also a tent offering lectio divina.
“This enhanced feeding facility has come very much as a response to the request of the local authority,” Sherbrooke said. “We have a long tradition of feeding people happily and well. But in a very strange sort of way, the Church, from being a physical reality behind four walls, is now a reality in the street.”
Sherbrooke, who cites St Damien of Molokai and Mother Teresa as inspirations, continued: “It’s imparting a spiritual, pastoral care, where I have a strong sense that the Holy Spirit is literally building a church on the streets. There’s lectio divina. There’s adoration — in other words, a prolongation of the Holy Mass — confession, rosary, etc.”
“We are ministering to the people. We are going to them, speaking to them, giving rosaries and sharing the Gospel. So there is a real work of evangelization going on.”
Volunteers also distribute a sheet each week with reflections, Scripture readings, and advice on how to pray.
“So there’s a kind of catechesis of the poor which is going on,” Sherbrooke said.
“There is a very real sense that in this terrible virus situation that God is creating a very different kind of Church, much more evangelical, and perhaps simpler. All this has happened not through management but I believe through God’s providence.”
He noted that despite the present dangers volunteers felt a strong sense of supernatural protection.
“Personally, I would say that the way that I haven’t caught [the virus] — given the reality of the situation here — is that every day I pray that the Precious Blood of Jesus will come into my heart, my veins, my lungs, and protect me from the virus so that I can do this work,” he said.
In 2011, St. Patrick’s reopened after a £4 million restoration project, which included the excavation of the basement and the creation of the parish center, located beneath the church. Food for the homeless is now prepared there every day.
“It’s almost as though God has crafted this parish for this work at this time,” Sherbrooke said.