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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As one of 12,000 Capuchin Franciscan friars worldwide—an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi—Giannone devotes his energies to serving the poor, sick and dying. He lives modestly, as befits his vow of poverty. He considers himself merely one of many in a Roman Catholic brotherhood, though his ministry has served hundreds of thousands of people since its inception. Giannone credits his army of volunteers, supporters and staff. They, in turn, credit him.
But not everyone is feeling the love. Despite the altruistic nature of his mission, Giannone finds himself embroiled in a legal matter he calls “corrupt.” He is facing opposition to building a permanent housing facility for low-income seniors on Wilmington’s East Side. Mayor Dennis Williams, who initially supported the project, has withdrawn his promise of financial assistance. Giannone wants to know why Williams has changed his mind about a facility that promises permanent housing to those desperate for it.
Giannone insists the facility will go up. Others don’t want the ministry in the neighborhood. The question is why.
Cory Cunningham is one of thousands the ministry has helped. He was 17 when he found his alcoholic mother dead, with blood running from her mouth to her stomach. His father left them eight years prior. Cunningham fell into the wrong crowd, got into alcohol and drugs, and earned a felony charge. He lived under a bridge near Browntown, where he says he “disassociated (himself) from society.” He panhandled off the bridge and got drunk at the corner of 4th and Madison. He also fathered four children.
Cunningham discovered the ministry’s Emmanuel Dining Room on Jackson Street six years ago. “I had no job, nothing,” he says. “It was like a family. They asked if I wanted food and I accepted. I told Sister (Kathleen O’Donnell, who manages the room) I didn’t have a job, and I was so into this place, I asked if I could volunteer, and she accepted.”
Brother Miguel Ramirez, a Capuchin Franciscan friar and Emmanuel’s program director, welcomed Cunningham when society wrote him off. “Call it a miracle, a transformation, God’s hand or just luck,” says Ramirez. “It wasn’t about giving Cory the answers, just the ear and the heart. Now, he comes here to help us.”
A protector of sorts, Cunningham watches over the friars and staff at Emmanuel, and knows nearly everyone they serve. Most come from economically depressed areas of Wilmington and New Castle. Anywhere from 25 to 130 children come to the dining room each day, and they range in age from about 5 to 15. Some kids come with parents, some don’t. Cunningham walks the younger ones across the street. Once they hit 16, they’re lost to the streets, he says, “especially since they closed the Boys Club near Browntown.” The ministry operates three dining rooms, and served 189,239 people in 2012 alone.