By Connie Berry
Bishop Robert Cunningham followed in the footsteps of his predecessors when he celebrated Mass at Unity Kitchen in downtown Syracuse Aug. 22. This time though, the Mass was in celebration of a milestone. Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker is 40 years old. With a simple altar covered with a white cloth, the bishop welcomed all the guests and volunteers who filled what is usually the dining room at 385 W. Onondaga St.
The bishop described God as a “teacher” in his homily. He said the world is very different and yet in some ways the same as it was for the people of the first century.
“We feel ourselves veering from the narrow path so God sends us reminders,” Bishop Cunningham said. “He reminds us of our need to not be concerned with things happening outside, but with our relationship with Him and each other. And yet God, like every good teacher, tries to help us grow.”
The history of Unity Kitchen includes its own growing pains. It opened in September of 1970 with Bob Russell, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, at the helm. He was living at St. Lucy’s rectory and providing community service. Father Ted Sizing, then at St. Lucy’s Church, asked Russell to open a soup kitchen. Father Sizing and then Father Dick Keough were early supporters. A storefront was found at 564 S. Salina St. and Unity Kitchen opened. Ann O’Connor began her work at Unity Kitchen in the early days, shortly after the kitchen opened. Peter King joined the community in September of 1972. They married in 1980 and still serve as the primary leaders of Unity Kitchen.
The anniversary Mass also provided a way for the couple to thank all the volunteers and guests who have helped keep the kitchen going over the years. “We thank God for our 40 years of grace and gifts and being taken care of,” O’Connor said after the Mass. “We’re really a small endeavor in the whole of things.”
The principles that founded the kitchen were those of the Catholic Worker — hospitality and serving each guest as if he or she was the face of Jesus. The small endeavor was not always so small. The first year many of the people who came to the kitchen were homeless or alcoholics or both. It was a time of urban renewal and the storefront was leased for $1 and slated for demolition at the end of the year. After a year of soup lines, a new location was found in an abandoned factory building. This location was large enough to also offer overnight shelter, O’Connor said. The soup lines continued and Unity Kitchen was often chaotic and crowded. A policy of never saying “no” to those who came to the door meant the conditions inside were sometimes tumultuous, O’Connor explained.
A study was performed by a group at Syracuse University in 1977 examining the kitchen’s ability to function on a human service level. The results, O’Connor said, were dismal, although the study did praise the Catholic Worker principles of non-violence, voluntary poverty and personalism practiced at the kitchen. The group that worked at the site was burned out and overextended and O’Connor said they began to look at what they were doing. Because of the numbers of people being served, she said, there was no time for relationship building or true Christian hospitality. The folks stood in line, ate their soup and sandwich hurriedly and left so that more could be fed.
It was at this time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a core group at the kitchen decided to discern their intentions and through Scripture study and prayer, come to a communal consensus about the future of Unity Kitchen. This time the group came to agreement on how to serve the poor in a personal and dignified way. They went from serving 120 people in soup lines in an institutional fashion to serving 24 guests at dining tables with flowers, china and silver tableware. Five guests and one server eat at the tables family-style. O’Connor said, “We went from soup kitchen to soup tureens.”
“We all agreed we couldn’t serve large numbers of wounded people in a dignified way,” O’Connor explained. “We began the very interesting process of studying the history of Christian hospitality in the church.”
The base community decided on 12 or multiples of 12 as a definite number to serve. They agreed on 24 and began serving an evening meal — “a gracious dinner,” O’Connor said. A guest registry was developed and a place for a stranger who might be welcomed to the kitchen is always open. There are still guests from the early days who come to dinner, O’Connor said. But this time they take the time to hang up their coats and hats and sit down to be served by a volunteer. Dinner conversation includes everything from politics to recipes. Unity Kitchen now practices what O’Connor called “limited but lavish” hospitality. Currently, the kitchen serves two dinners a week and is open each Sunday for noon Mass with refreshments afterward.
The change from soup lines to dining tables did not come without a price. The hospitaliers lost much support when they changed their vision, O’Connor said. “But we gained support too,” she said. “A lot of people just couldn’t accept the limited numbers.”
Controversy from the radical change in hospitality has followed the Unity Kitchen community over the years. O’Connor and King are outspoken in their views of Catholic Worker hospitality. They recognize the movement’s founders, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, but O’Connor said over the years, the Catholic faith has dissolved from some Catholic Worker endeavors. “There have been ups and downs about the way hospitality is done,” O’Connor said. “Now there are many Catholic Workers in existence who have lost their Catholic faith. Many are even pro-abortion. Anybody can buy a building and put a ‘Catholic Worker’ sign on it.”
It was Maurin who was the theorist or thinker behind the Catholic Worker movement. It developed during the depression when there were long soup lines and unemployment was rampant. Day was a journalist and a Catholic convert who couldn’t reconcile some of her newspaper work with her new-found Catholicism, O’Connor said. She and Maurin began the Catholic Worker newspaper, which is still published today. Maurin died in 1949 and Day continued the work until her death in 1980.
Today, most Catholic Workers focus on two dimensions of Dorothy Day, O’Connor said. “One is her Catholicism, and it was very strong,” she said. “The other is her resistance ideas — resistance to war, the government, Wall Street and some include a resistance to the church as a part of it.”
O’Connor said when Catholic Worker communities put aside the Catholicism Day practiced and the church she loved, they open themselves to chaos and confusion. “We take a strong stand for the church. She has a lot of problems, yes, but so do we,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor wrote an essay a number of years ago titled “Catholic Workers: Are They Catholic?” The article was greeted with little enthusiasm. O’Connor said it may be the Irish in her but she has no intention of backing down on something she considers so important — her faith. “Modernism poisons everything,” she said.
And although Dorothy Day visited the Syracuse area before she died, O’Connor said she wishes Dorothy Day was around today so they might discuss the hospitality at Unity Kitchen.
“We called her once and had a big discussion and she said ‘stay small’ but then she’d praise a larger kitchen,” O’Connor said. “She wasn’t always clear on hospitality besides the idea of feeding whoever comes. She didn’t have all the answers and she could be contradictory. I wouldn’t say that I know what Dorothy Day would say about Unity Kitchen but I bet if she was around we’d have some great discussions.”