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Friday, November 25, 2011

A Humble Friar and Proud Potentates

I have loved the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of Detroit since discovering the life of Detroit's and America's great saint, Father Solanus Casey.  I only wish there were more like Father Solanus and this good Brother, Al Mascia, to embarrass the gold cufflinked hierarchy who are too often focused on managing the decline of the local Church -- a decline resulting from their own failure to "launch out into the deep, and let down [their] nets."  Here is a friar, in the tradition of his founder, who can't even get use of one of the scores of vacant buildings maintained by his and most Archdiocesan bureaucracies; it might have a deleterious effect on property values.

Archbishop John J. Myers
The gold cufflink crowd of the Church's middle management find it more seemly to issue statements on "the problem of poverty" than to roll up their sleeves and prepare a sandwich for someone who is hungry, or find  a place for them to sleep.  They operate huge realty companies that market the closed and shuttered properties earlier generations of the faithful sacrificed to build.  They might think about the poverty of those in the rear view mirror as they drive to their country homes, but these days they are more likely to rub shoulders with real estate investors paying $5000 to attend one of their golf outings.  When they have to visit a parish or walk through an airport they request armed police protection to insulate them from the riffraff.  And for good reason too, the victims of criminal priests they shielded might turn up anywhere.

In the end, the brown robed monk hauling hot food and drink through the snowy streets of Detroit will do far more for the building of the Kingdom than will the pompous potentates of America's episcopacy.

Detroit's Brother Al Mascia puts soup kitchen on wheels
By Louis Aguilar

Brother Al Mascia has much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and so does his flock. 

After losing the brick-and-mortar headquarters for his Detroit-based charitable operations earlier this month, the brown-robed Franciscan friar has kept serving the homeless, the elderly and others in Detroit.
Mascia anticipated the closing of the building more than a year ago and raised $4,000 to buy two specially designed tricycles with vendor carts in front and storage trailers in the back so he wouldn't miss a beat in serving his clientele. 

"St. Francis went beyond the walls of the medieval city to serve the exiled," said Mascia, referring to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Catholic religious order to which Mascia belongs. "Now, I have no walls between me and the people I serve." 

Mascia's Canticle Café and St. Al's Community Center used to be housed in a large aging building on Washington Boulevard that cost $200,000 a year in utilities and maintenance. The building's owner, the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, sold it to a private firm that now owns the entire side of the street.

An archdiocese official said it cannot find an affordable new space for the community center because many building owners in a rebounding downtown don't want a tenant that serves the poor and homeless.
But the development didn't stop Mascia. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, in sun, sleet and snow, he pedals into the outdoor waiting area of the Rosa Parks Transit Center on the tricycle — a practice he started last year. 
'Working for the people'
On Tuesday last week, dozens quickly lined up — the homeless Army veteran with two children, the recovering crack addict, the elderly woman who said she comes mainly to stave off loneliness. Mascia and three volunteers gave away all they had within 45 minutes. 

"Brother Al is always working for the people," said Leona Palazzolo of Detroit, who says she has relied on the friar's services for seven years. "He's always got time to listen to you, and he doesn't ever talk down to you. He's just real nice to be around." 

The change in operations might be a blessing in disguise, Mascia said.

"There is more opportunity here than the brick-and-mortar center," he said. "I see more families here on the streets, more of the mentally ill. We are about serving people."

The tricycle-based Canticle Café provides service six times a week at the public bus terminal on Cass Avenue just north of Michigan Avenue. Father Tod Laverty from St. Aloysius Catholic Church on Washington Boulevard and other volunteers operate the mobile help center on the days when Mascia is out raising money. He has already found a benefactor to buy another tricycle.
Can-do spirit
The brick-and-mortar Canticle Café would not have lasted as long as it did without Mascia's fundraising and venture into retailing. In 2008, the recession led to a decline of more than a third in corporate donations, and donations kept shrinking, the friar said. The community center served about 300 daily. It offered breakfast, groceries and clothing, Internet access and general education diploma and literacy classes, as well as medical help from a nurse practitioner. 

"Even someone like me knew that this wasn't a temporary setback. We had to act," Mascia said.

First, he began to sell shade-grown, fair-trade coffee from Chiapas, Mexico, by partnering with a local coffee vendor. The Canticle Cafe blend helps the Detroit poor and the indigenous growers in Mexico.

The venture raised thousands of dollars for the Detroit center. The cafe expanded into selling candles called Friar Lights, T-shirts and dog biscuits. The retail line still survives despite the shutting of the shelter.

Mascia is also a musician who writes songs inspired by the seniors and homeless people he meets on the job.

About two years ago, he decided to take his guitar and amplifier on the road — along with a specially made pushcart full of coffee, Friar Lights, T-shirts and CDs — mainly to suburban parishes, where he hopes his concerts will move people to help the downtown friars continue their good works.
Concert planned
Mascia has a concert scheduled for 3 p.m. Dec. 18 at Prince of Peace Church in West Bloomfield Township.

Mascia says he's eager to expand the services. He is forging more partnerships with private businesses, such as the one with Ypsilanti-based Perk and Brew Inc.'s Brenda Moore, as well as churches of other denominations and other Catholic churches, to keep growing. What he now mainly lacks, he said, is more volunteers to help him in the winter months.

"When we get the new vehicle, I hope to go into the alleys and other areas where people with no home may be seeking shelter," Mascia said. "We want them to know that someone is thinking about them."

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