In the Shadow of the Steeple
Who is Brother Ronald Giannone, and what drives him to do the things he does?
Brother Ronald Giannone is a man of the cloth. But he gets angry like any other man. And what makes him angriest is a society that celebrates greed while tolerating poverty.
“You can understand it in Calcutta,” Giannone says. “But how in the land of plenty, and in the shadow of DuPont, can we allow even one person to be homeless?”
It’s a question that has haunted Giannone since he arrived in Delaware in 1976, founded The Ministry of Caring a year later, and became Wilmington’s most powerful proponent of social justice. He is a savior to Delaware’s poor, whom he feels privileged to serve.
He includes the poor in a society that excludes them. Thousands of Delawareans suffer untold indignities, and the ministry offers food, shelter and camaraderie to those crippled by loneliness and beaten down by disappointment.
Giannone’s faith is his foundation, but the ministry’s door is open to all who need it, regardless of their religious backgrounds. Most poor people are victims of generational poverty that’s been embedded in society for centuries. There’s no easy fix.
The ministry will probably always be in business. One reason is its wide-reaching offerings. The other reason is Giannone himself.
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 Mayor Dennis Williams, who initially supported the project, has withdrawn his promise of financial assistance.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.
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.)
“I wouldn’t give this up for nothing,” says Garvin. Her 600-square-foot unit boasts a kitchen with Corian countertops and Maytag appliances (Giannone worked out a deal with the CEO of Maytag, and got the appliances at cost). Her bedroom is airy and large, and there’s a wheelchair accessible tub. Emergency call buttons and smoke detectors are required for each of Sacred Heart’s 78 units. There is 24-hour security, and cameras that capture “every inch of the building,” says Giannone. Sacred Heart also houses a café, convenience store, hair salon, computer room, fitness room and a medical center.
Fitness manager Michelle Glazier takes a holistic approach to health. “I love seeing the light go on in the residents’ eyes when they’ve made the connection,” she says. “All of a sudden, they can do things for themselves. They can lift their arms. Their quality of life is improved, and maybe mine is, too. When I leave here, I always feel good.”
Sister Pat Kereszi is the manager at Sacred Heart Village. She earned a degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Neumann University, and is also a licensed mental health counselor. She knows every resident by name.
“If Sacred Heart didn’t exist,” says Kereszi, “our residents might live with sons or daughters or grandchildren. Some would live in hotels. Many would be homeless.”
There are between 85 and 105 people on Sacred Heart’s two-year waiting list, though there is little turnover. Linda Richardson, the service coordinator who was hired 34 years ago by Sister Magdalen O’Hara, points to the portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that hangs in the lobby. She smiles, and says that all cultures are honored here. Giannone keeps an album with the residents’ names and photos, so he can address them personally when he visits. When he does, they get into a major gabfest. But days like today are tough. A resident has died, and Giannone is consoling the others.
“Sacred Heart Village should be a prototype for every government-sponsored senior housing in the nation,” says Wilmington Councilwoman Loretta Walsh. “Any taxpayer who complains about government and goes over there to see what their government is capable of subsidizing feels a sense of relief knowing that their tax dollars are well spent.”
The most important thing about working at Sacred Heart, says Kereszi, is that “every resident is treated with respect and dignity.”
Respect and dignity: two words ministry staffers use often to describe their service to the poor. They’re more like ideals, which were inspired by Giannone, who was inspired by his mother.
Connie Giannone worked as a seamstress in a factory in the Bronx. Her husband served in the armed forces during the Korean War, and bought the family home on Murdock Avenue with money from the G.I. Bill. Connie was the head of the household and Ronald was the second youngest of her seven children. He worked with his mother in the factory, handing out fabrics to the women.
“She was a beautiful lady,” says Ronald Giannone, his normally loud voice softening. He pauses for a moment, clasps his hands, and looks down at the floor. Connie died on June 12, 1987, and Giannone still seems wounded by her loss. Talking about her comforts him. Her portrait hangs in Sacred Heart’s lobby, near Dr. King’s. Every year, the staff and residents celebrate Connie Giannone Day—Sacred Heart Village, in fact, was designed with Connie in mind. It provides for the elderly the kind of housing Giannone wishes he could have provided for her. His immense respect for women was likely born of his relationship with his mother.
Connie had her hands full with seven kids and a full-time job—Ronald was probably the most rambunctious. For example, he was the only sibling who talked his way into Catholic elementary school—not because the family could afford it, but because he schmoozed the principal and got in tuition-free.
He went to Evander Childs, a public high school, and did his junior and senior years as a co-op student. He had school every other week, and on the off weeks earned $60 a week as a messenger for Mutual of New York. Giannone didn’t learn much about the stock market, but he did learn diligence.
A career in finance wasn’t in the cards. As it happened, there was a Capuchin center next door to Evander Childs High, and Giannone was drawn to it. In August of 1969, he entered the order in Beacon, N.Y. He did his novitiate at a monastery in Indiana, then worked with the rural poor in Lafayette, N.J. He came to Delaware in 1976, and was assigned to the St. Francis Renewal Center, a retreat house on Silverside Road in North Wilmington.
“Father Camilla (who ran the center) said I can see you’re not doing flips being here,” says Giannone. “I was embarrassed that he picked that up, but I told him I would give it my heart. I’m not even an ordained priest at the time, but I told him I wanted to work with the poor. He said, ‘What’s stopping you?’”
The following January, Giannone learned at a meeting with Social Services that homeless women had the greatest need, so he built a shelter. At the time, Giannone says, “you never visualized a woman being homeless. That was when the media used the term, ‘shopping bag ladies.’ You only thought of homeless men.”
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.
The dialect doesn’t stop Giannone from nurturing relationships with the most powerful corporate leaders in the state. His list of benefactors make up an impressive group, such as the Cawleys, Giaccos, Abessinios—with support from foundations like Longwood, Laffey-McHugh, and the Welfare Foundation. The ministry benefits also from donors in 45 states.
Giannone attracts talented employees, too,—former national Republican committeewoman Priscilla Rakestraw as development director is one. His most meaningful endeavor, though, was persuading the cloistered Capuchin Poor Clares to leave Mexico to serve the ministry. (The full story of this complicated and poignant negotiation is found at capuchinpoorclares.org.)
“The cloistered sisters came at great sacrifice,” says Giannone. Among many duties, the Poor Clares prepare meals five days a week for residents of Hope House II and III (emergency shelters), and create newsletters that reach 14,000 people. “They are the backbone of the ministry,” Giannone says, “because by the power of prayer, they support us in our work.”
Giannone’s temper and outspokenness have gotten him into trouble. In 2000 George W. Bush came to town during his presidential campaign. He was the guest speaker at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, where Charles Cawley was receiving the Marvel Cup Award, and Giannone had received it the year before. Giannone scolded Bush.
“I told him it was a scandal in America that there should be even one homeless person in the country,” he says.
The next day, Ted Koppel reported on national television that a Franciscan friar embarrassed Bush.
“I felt bad initially,” says Giannone. “But then I realized that we should all feel bad. We should all be embarrassed. The fact that we feel embarrassed says we’re not indifferent to poverty.”
Giannone acknowledges his mistakes. “In the beginning, we were getting people jobs, and we found people apartments,” he says. “We thought we were the cat’s meow. Then all of a sudden, they were recycling back to us.”
He discovered that the poor did better in transitional residential settings, where they learned skills and developed a sense of belonging. Transitional housing was new in the ’70s, so Giannone learned through trial and error, and realized that there was no silver bullet for homelessness. That’s why he is opposed fervently to the Obama administration’s Recovery Act, which allocates $1.5 billion to the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.
The biggest headache for Giannone is an empty lot on Wilmington’s East Side, where he’s trying to build a permanent housing facility for seniors.
In 2007 the ministry purchased property at 625 E. 10th St. for $350,000. The initial plan was to build row homes for low-income residents. Then the economy tanked. Banks denied construction loans, and the market couldn’t support the plan. Giannone explored the possibility of building another facility like Sacred Heart Village, which would include 24-hour security and surveillance cameras. The building would be called Sacred Heart Village II.
According to documents provided by HUD, the Wilmington City Council supported the need for Sacred Heart II. The resolution, dated Oct. 21, 2010, stated, “The East Side of Wilmington is sorely lacking a housing facility dedicated solely to senior citizens ... Low income senior citizens currently living on the East Side of Wilmington would greatly benefit from having a senior living facility in their community.”
The ministry raised $7.1 million, a combination of a $4.2 million grant from HUD, donations from foundations, and a promise of $375,000 from the city of Wilmington. Mayor Williams had visited the site and reacted favorably to the concept. Giannone and others went door to door, and 118 people in the neighborhood signed a petition supporting the facility. Seven East Siders even completed pre-applications.
Plans were moving quickly until Cecelia and Jewel Hoey, who own several properties on the East Side, opposed construction. They took their complaints to the zoning board, which voted in the ministry’s favor. The Hoeys unsuccessfully appealed to the Superior Court the board’s granting of a use variance. They had argued that the center’s location would be disruptive in a neighborhood zoned for single-family housing, according to court records, but the Superior Court upheld the variance.
The Hoeys then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the zoning board. The Hoeys lost on remand to the zoning board, and appealed again to the Superior Court. Attorney Richard Abbott, who was hired by the Hoeys in January 2013, which was after the second appeal was filed in Superior Court, says that that court ruled against the Hoeys on Aug. 29, 2013. Abbott says his clients are considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court again.
The interminable litigation prompted Mayor Williams to withdraw his promise of $375,000. In an email to Delaware Today, he stated: “Two years ago, the City of Wilmington made a commitment to the 25-unit Sacred Heart Village II Supportive Housing project from its Fiscal Year 2011 allocation federal HOME Investment Partnership funds. Use of this federal grant requires the City to commit the funding within two years of receipt and fully expend it within four years.
Due to litigation resulting from community opposition,” Williams added, “the Ministry of Caring’s Sacred Heart Village II project has been delayed. The delay prevented the City from entering into an agreement by the June 2013 HUD mandated deadline. Rather than risk losing the funding, the Williams Administration reprogrammed it to the Wilmington Housing Partnership for several housing rehabilitation projects.” (Two of those projects were located on the East Side and one in Northeast Wilmington.)
“Once all legal matters concerning the development of the Sacred Heart Village II Supportive Housing project have been resolved,” the mayor continued, “it is the intention of the Williams Administration to support the project subject to available funding.”
Williams in a letter told Giannone he could reapply. “But that’s the kiss of death,” says Giannone. “That takes 10 months to a year before you get an answer.”
It does take that long, confirms City Councilwoman Loretta Walsh. “And with construction costs rising all the time, every day that goes by is costing this project more money,” she says. “The disgrace is that there is a whole pool of seniors in that area who desperately need this housing.”
Abbott says his clients are concerned with the area’s lack of on-street parking. But there are more issues at play. Sources interviewed on the condition of anonymity say that some landlords on the East Side don’t want cameras surveying street activity, nor do they want the ministry taking money out of their pockets by housing their renters.
Sources also feel that many properties available to the elderly on the East Side are not comparable to the quality units proposed by the Ministry of Caring.
Giannone would love to be out of business. “My great wish would be that there would be no need for the Ministry of Caring,” he says.
That’s not likely. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 103,427 Delawareans are impoverished. About 10.7 percent of the population in New Castle County lives at the poverty level. The ministry’s work goes on, thanks to the selfless among us.
There are the people at St. Francis Hospital whom Giannone thinks “should be canonized.” Its Saint Clare Medical Outreach Van travels the streets of Wilmington delivering care to the homeless, poor and uninsured. The van was Giannone’s idea, but St. Francis absorbs its costs and provides the doctors.
There was Gary M. Isaacs, a dentist who for 12 years drove to Wilmington every day from Milford, offering full dental services to the poor, and making a fraction of the salary he would have in private practice.
Those who serve the ministry don’t need to see their names in print—there wouldn’t be enough space to list them anyway. Rakestraw summarized it best: “Working with the friars has made me a better person.”
Don’t tell the friars that. They’re not big on flattery, nor do they enjoy being called God-like. “We know people mean that in a good way,” says Ramirez, “but it’s an uncomfortable compliment.”
Giannone understands innately that the dichotomy between wealth and poverty may always exist. That makes him angry. Yet he’s content, probably because he knows his purpose. He recognizes that courtroom dramas aside, his is an extraordinary, ordinary life.
“I have the great privilege of serving the poor,” says Giannone. “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
The Ministry of Caring offers myriad programs that serve the poor. Its budget is north of $10 million. This timeline depicts the ministry’s growth.
1977 Hope House I (emergency shelter for homeless women)
1979 Emmanuel Dining Room (the first dining room for the hungry in Wilmington)
1982 Emmanuel Dining Room (second dining room for the hungry)
1983 Hope House Transitional Residence (transitional housing for single women)
Mary Mother of Hope House II (emergency shelter for homeless women with children)
1985 Job Placement Center (employment and training service for the disadvantaged)
House of Joseph I (emergency shelter for homeless employable men)
1986 Capuchin Poor Clares arrive from Mexico. They establish St. Veronica Giuliani Monastery, a cloistered community.
1987 Emmanuel Dining Room (third dining room for the hungry)
1988 Mary Mother of Hope House III (emergency shelter for homeless women with children)
1989 Distribution Center (houses supplies, furniture and clothing for those in need)
1992 St. Clare Medical Van (outreach partnership with St. Francis Hospital offering health care services where the poor in Wilmington live)
Child Care Center (childcare and early learning for offspring of the poor, homeless and working poor)
1995 St. Francis Transitional Residence (housing for homeless women and children from the emergency shelters)
Pierre Toussaint Dental Office (office that provides basic dental services for the poor)
Samaritan Outreach (outreach center that helps the poor and homeless with housing referrals, case management, hygienic services and support)
1997 House of Joseph II (permanent residence for homeless people living with AIDS)
1998 Immigration Law office opens Guardian Angel Child Care Center (childcare and early education provider for toddlers to kindergarteners)
Nazareth House Transitional Residence I (transitional residence for families)
House of Joseph Transitional Residence (transitional residence for single men and women who have left the emergency shelters)
1999 Nazareth House Transitional Residence II (transitional housing that helps families)
2001 Sacred Heart Village (permanent housing for seniors)
2002 Francis X. Norton Center (community youth and senior activity center)
Bethany House (permanent housing for women with disabilities or special needs)
2003 Il Bambino (affordable infant care program for the poor, working poor and homeless)
House of Joseph III (residence for adjudicated young men)
2006 Mary Mother of Hope House III Sacred Heart Transitional House (for single women)
2007 Maria Lorenza Longo House (long-term residence for single women, formerly House of Joseph III)
2010 Padre Pio House (long-term residence for men with disabilities)
2011 Josephine Bakhita House (a home for volunteers dedicated to serving a year of service to the ministry)
2013 Bethany House II (expansion of Bethany House I, a long-term housing facility for women with disabilities)
Planning Stages Sacred Heart Village II (permanent housing for seniors on Wilmington’s East Side)