One friar, one cook, one Queen Street West storefront, a dozen or so daily volunteers and 1, 000, 000 meals served: this is the math behind St. Francis’ Table in Toronto.
It’s really as simple as that. The rest flows as naturally as stories from the heart of a Newfoundlander. And for our purposes, the Newfoundlander in question is Brother John Frampton.
Brother John is an unexpected hero of the Parkdale neighborhood. Having moved to Toronto six years ago from Newfoundland to take over the post at St. Francis’ Table, Br. John is a friend to all. He has all the time in the world for stories, whether he is telling a colourful tale or lending a supportive ear. In his line of work, it tends to be the latter.
“There’s a story waiting to be told in every face we see here,” Br. John told me during our visit yesterday at St. Francis Table. Our Salt + Light crew was too early for the millionth meal by 80 servings and 4 hours (the actual millionth meal was served at dinner that night) but decidedly, we knew the millionth meal would not change anything. It would be business as usual at St. Francis table; they would serve whoever came to them with cheerful hearts.
Our team caught wind of the upcoming “commemoration” a few weeks ago and I happily took on the story. When I first called Br. John, I betrayed my distance from the cause within the first two minutes of our conversation: “We’d like to come film as you celebrate your one millionth meal,” I had said. “We don’t celebrate hunger,” came Br. John’s solemn reply, “I wish we didn’t have to mark such a milestone”. It was a sobering (and humbling) moment, as you can imagine.
As I stood off to the side waiting for the doors to open for the lunch-time influx, I took a moment to examine the friar. After taking in his black and silver “skater” sneakers and the U2 earring dangling from his left ear, I arrived at the conclusion that without the conspicuous brown capuchin habit, he really was a regular guy; a regular guy doing God’s work.
The people at St. Francis’ Table have been in operation since 1987. At that time, it was decided that the establishment would be a “restaurant for the poor”; not a soup kitchen. The difference? The patrons pay a loonie for their meal.
“It’s all about dignity,” Br. John explains from behind his desk where he welcomes the incoming crowd each day, Br. Andre-style, “paying gives them the right to complain. Their waiters are volunteers and if there is something they don’t like, they tell us. It is rare that this happens, but they have the option.”
The patrons at St. Francis Table are bursting at the seams with life and experience. At one table, I sat listening as the philosophy of democracy was being discussed in earnest, at another Christmas purchases for loved ones were being appraised. Among those present were world travelers, Ph.D. students, writers, laid-off business executives, single dads with their kids and a contingent of Tibetan immigrants practicing their English, to boot. All in a day’s work!
As we were packing our equipment into the van on the street, a passerby approached Brother John as he was seeing us off. The man asked Br. John how he could make a contribution to his work. Brother went inside to get a brochure with donating information. While he was inside, the man told us about how one day not too long ago, the streets were gridlocked because a man was threatening to jump off of the overpass. He didn’t end up jumping. In the meantime, Brother John took it upon himself to go outside and help the police to direct traffic…in his Franciscan habit. “This is the kind of guy Br. John is,” the man said, remembering the scene with a smile “he shows us that helping people should just come naturally”.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for an episode of Catholic Focus featuring the good work at Toronto's St. Francis Table. In the meantime, to make a contribution to a great cause visit their website here.