In the Shadow of the Steeple
Who is Brother Ronald Giannone, and what drives him to do the things he does?
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Although most come from poor neighborhoods, Delawareans from all lifestyles find refuge at Emmanuel, which is open 365 days a year. They are homeless or battling AIDS. Some are former felons who’ve done their time but have little chance of finding employment—or a landlord who’ll trust them. Battered single mothers eat there. They’re raising their kids on the streets, and navigating difficulties only other single mothers understand. There are well-dressed adults with advanced degrees who’ve been laid off and can’t find work. They’ve turned to alcohol, crack or heroin, and in many cases, destroyed their marriages or families in the process.
People like Cunningham have escaped the hellholes, but still need the companionship. He works the graveyard shift at the Penn Center Riverfront complex now, but he volunteers every day at Emmanuel. Cunningham found a second chance on Jackson Street.
“I can’t ever give back what they gave me,” he says, adding that the friars are helping him secure a pardon for the felony he committed 20 years ago by writing letters of support. Cunningham frames the letters, and hangs them on a wall in his new apartment on Delaware Avenue.
Giannone has overseen the creation of numerous facilities that operate under the Ministry of Caring umbrella. House of Joseph II, its facility for homeless adults in the advanced stages of AIDS, is the only AIDS hospice in Delaware with medical personnel on site 24 hours a day. Brother Robert Perez, a Capuchin friar from the Dominican Republic, is a force there. He studied at St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia and received a medal in English despite it being his second language. He’s a superstar to the residents—known for his lively meetings, movie star looks and compassionate care. Perez is a friend to the sick. He laughs at their jokes—and makes a few corny ones of his own. He bathes those unable to bathe themselves. And when they lay dying, he holds their hands.
It’s quite a bit louder at Il Bambino, a ministry facility on North Madison Street that serves infants of homeless and formerly homeless families. Site manager Lauren Avera calls her job “a vocation, rather than a career.” Annie Thomas, a retired healthcare worker, is a foster grandparent who gets paid via a stipend from the state. You get the feeling she isn’t there for the money.
“The babies need love and structure,” says Thomas. “It gives me something to do that’s meaningful.”
Rosella Garvin was one of the first residents of Sacred Heart Village on North Monroe Street, the ministry’s permanent housing complex for low-income seniors. Garvin loves to sit on a bench with the other residents, gazing at the renovated Sacred Heart Oratory across the street.
Sacred Heart Village opened in 2001, and became a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood. Residents pay 30 percent of their income and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidizes the rest. (According to 2013 HUD Income Limits, $27,750 per person is considered low income in New Castle County. Whether from Social Security or any other kind of assistance, most of these residents earn much less.)