In the Shadow of the Steeple
Who is Brother Ronald Giannone, and what drives him to do the things he does?
(page 6 of 10)
After learning that Giannone had no money, the bishop donated $5,000. A duplex on Van Buren Street was for sale, but its owner wanted $7,500. Giannone talked her down to $5,000. The neighbors, impressed with the project, helped him secure the vacant house next door to the duplex and petitioned City Hall to give it to him for $1. So Giannone paid $5,001 for the two houses. It became Hope House I, the first emergency shelter for single, homeless women on the Delmarva Peninsula. It has since welcomed 6,000 women.
That was the beginning. The Ministry of Caring would soon encompass facilities that served the poor in dignified ways and in various capacities, such as the three dining rooms, emergency shelters, transitional and permanent residences, job training and placement, childcare, health and dental care, housing for people with AIDS, and outreach to the unsheltered homeless.
Its facilities are purposely elegant, though all function in low-income neighborhoods. Credit Giannone. “If our place is a flophouse, you’ll feel like a flop,” he says. “When I started, the big criticism of me was that I was making it too nice. They’re never going to leave. They’re going to destroy the place. Nobody says that to me anymore.”
Giannone is a bit of a contradiction. He hates the spotlight, but is a natural leader. He’s unpretentious but charismatic. He lives plainly, but has a penchant for quality craftsmanship. (Don’t even think about particleboard cabinets, especially in housing for the poor.) He loves TV police dramas and pinochle. Every night, he insists that the three friars with whom he lives on Jackson Street put aside the burdens of the ministry. There’s no work talk at 9 p.m., when the friars watch TV, play cards and eat ice cream.
Giannone wears the Capuchin tunic, a plain brown robe with a hood replicating clothing worn by the poor in St. Francis’ time. The rope belt has three knots that symbolize the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The friars own no personal property, nor do they have bank accounts or credit cards. They carry around about $20 for necessities. Their vows of poverty are reflected in simple lives devoid of wealth or material possessions—anything that’s tangible. That’s different from other types of poverty, “the kind in the street that equals deprivation,” says Ramirez. “We simply deprive ourselves of the extras, the luxuries we don’t need and are just distractions.”
You can take the man out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of Giannone. He regularly visits his former parish in the Bronx, and has a weakness for cheesecake from Eileen’s Bakery. He never lost the accent, most notably when he drops his a’s and r’s. When he says Mass at Sacred Heart Oratory, that type of pronunciation works to his advantage. It’s as if he’s thinking about each word, perhaps, in part, because each word takes effort. When he presents the consecrated Host, raises his eyes and says, “the Body of Christ,” his speech is slow and purposeful. He’s somewhere else—one might conclude in a zone with God. The congregation slows its speech in rhythm with his. Even a person raised Catholic may contemplate prayers that have become rote. “Forgive us our trespasses,” said slowly feels more like a plea, a personal confession.