by Robin Cuddy
The most recent Department of Housing and Urban Development report on homelessness, published in 2015, estimated that about 564,000 homeless people in the United States live in shelters or on the streets. For Jack O’Doherty, an Ignatian volunteer for over twelve years, the homeless men he served at the Outreach Program at Old St. Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia were not just statistics. They were struggling veterans, unemployed laborers and other displaced workers, illiterate individuals, fragile elderly persons, the physically and mentally disabled and those released from overcrowded prisons—their lives complicated by alcoholism, drug use, mental illness or maybe just bad luck. In their company, Jack felt the warmth of God’s presence—the spark of an eternal flame.
Old St. Joseph’s Church was founded in 1733—the first Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. The right of Catholics to worship at the “Romish Chapel” was initially challenged by the Governor General of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly ultimately decided not to ban the celebration of Mass—citing William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. Nowhere else could Catholics enjoy public worship to the extent possible in 18th century Philadelphia. The American and French armies celebrated high mass in 1781 at Old St. Joseph’s after the victory at Yorktown—the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War.
At Old St. Joseph’s Church, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons and on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, Jack and other volunteers gathered in the parish hall to prepare a hot, home-cooked meal for some of the homeless men of Philadelphia. According to Jack, “it is a meal served with compassion and love, dignity and respect” and is the cornerstone of the Outreach Program. Jack was inspired and humbled by the fact that these homeless men often used part of their social security or disability checks to make donations to the Outreach Program which must run on a frugal budget. “Even though their funds were limited, they used some of that money to pay back to the Program. The men often contributed what they could to replenish supplies.”
A twenty-seven-year career spent in government service and an encore career in retirement teaching classes in Criminal Justice and Ethics at Neumann University and at Montgomery County Community College prepared Jack for his work at the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and at Old St. Joseph’s Church. Jack worked in the Outreach Program for close to ten years beginning in 2004—interrupted by a year of service with Catholic Social Services in 2005. At the Outreach Program, he assisted in coordinating the volunteers, ordering food and supplies, menu selection, food preparation, helping with clothing and mail distribution as well as assisting in organizing the Outreach Fundraiser. The homeless men who participated in the Program were also able to receive support in finding shelter and transitional housing, learning computer skills, getting GED tutoring, help with resume preparation and assistance finding employment.
Nurses from Pennsylvania Hospital made presentations on health issues that related to the men’s health problems including diabetes, foot care and hypertension and monitored the men’s blood pressure. Other professionals made presentations on legal and financial matters. The Parish Spiritual Director conducted a prayer hour and reflection on how—as Jack put it— “God is part of all creation and part of their lives.” There were also sessions on Ignatian Spirituality—specifically in the use of the Examen. (The Examen is an Ignatian technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern His direction for us.)
Since 2014, Jack has served in the Adult Literacy Program at St. Patrick’s Church which serves a large Hispanic community in Norristown, Pennsylvania. There Jack witnesses “a community with a strong faith and devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe. They are hard-working and dedicated to learning English. They are an inspiration to me.” He teaches English as a second language to mothers who bring their children, high school students, laborers, business owners and other professionals including a medical doctor. According to Jack, “their strong faith, devotion, graciousness and appreciation enables me to discover His Presence in them.”
Jack has kept coming back to the Ignatian Volunteer Corps every year for a dozen years because, he says, “It is my way of giving back—to respond to a call to those in need.” He treasures the friendships he has made at Old St. Joseph’s and St. Patrick’s Church. Perhaps “the poor will always be with us but there will also be people willing to volunteer their time, money and energy” to lend a hand.
Robin Cuddy is a first year Ignatian Volunteer in Baltimore, whose service site is the IVC National Office. She is expanding staffing capacity in the areas of communications and administration.