Unity Kitchen hospitallers continue to serve up hospitality to the poor while working to rebuild their home after fire
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Every person who comes through the door of Unity Kitchen on West Onondaga Street in Syracuse receives the same warm welcome: “Peace of Christ.”
More often than not, it’s Peter King who answers the door tucked in the center of a block of storefronts, greeting each guest by name.
For some 40 years, King and his wife Ann O’Connor — married for 32 years — have been members of the Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker (UKC). Founded in 1970 with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s houses of hospitality as its models, the UKC offers gracious dinner hospitality to the poor in Syracuse.
These longtime servants of the homeless found themselves without a roof over their heads this past summer when fire damaged a portion of their home. Hesed House, the communal home for those who devote themselves fulltime to the Kitchen’s work, did not have fire insurance.
Despite the loss, King and O’Connor have carried on their work at the Kitchen and are determined to rebuild Hesed House, trusting — as they do in all things — that God will find a way to provide.
“Soup line to soup tureen”
O’Connor, looking much like Dorothy Day herself with headscarf and penetrating eyes, is quick to explain what makes the UKC different from other groups that serve the poor.
“We’re not an agency, we’re a Catholic community. We’re not a soup kitchen; we provide dinner hospitality. We serve guests, not clients. Peter and I are hospitallers.”
The community’s unique approach is evident from the moment the door to the Kitchen opens. Two evenings per week, up to 24 registered guests are ushered into a pair of serene, comfortable lounge areas ringed with rocking chairs and anchored by Oriental rugs. Six graceful oak and ash tables, each named for Biblical figures who showed hospitality, stand on the polished wooden floors of the dining area. The tables are set with matching Syracuse China and monogrammed silverware; fresh flowers sit at their centers.
In the kitchen, cooks produce delicious meals, served family-style by servers who sit with the guests. The menu on a recent Wednesday included green salad, turkey breast, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, butternut squash and Columbus Bakery bread; Dutch apple pie, made once a month by the same woman for the last 30 years, was served up for dessert.
O’Connor calls the Kitchen’s hospitality “limited but lavish.”
“We strive to make the meals a beautiful feast,” she said.
The Kitchen’s hospitality of today is far from its beginnings. When the UKC started in the 70s, it was a typical soup kitchen that served any number of guests, first out of a storefront on South Salina street then at a former venetian blind factory at West Adams and Oneida Streets. The community also ran an overnight dorm on the second floor. Conditions were cramped, crumbling and chaotic.
“We were seeing bad fruits from our labors,” King recalled. “Alcoholics were not getting sober, the violent were not becoming gentle, families were not becoming united.”
The UKC entered a long period of discernment, eventually leading to an overhaul of the hospitality program. A core group determined the only way to serve their guests with the dignity they deserved was to reduce the numbers served. A guest register was implemented, with guests invited to join the meals. Service was changed from buffet-style to sit-down, a move that bridged the gap between the “socially valued,” non-poor servers and the poor guests, O’Connor said. In 1985, the UKC moved into its current space and put in $60,000 worth of renovations to make it the beautiful place it is today. O’Connor described the evolution of the hospitality program as moving from “soup line to soup tureen.”
From the beginning, UKC has been supported entirely by alms from individuals and churches in the area; the community accepts no government money. King and O’Connor take no salaries and the 40 to 50 dedicated volunteers who assist them in providing hospitality are also unpaid. Supplies for meals come from a network of individuals who commit to bringing $7 worth of food once per month.
“We are good at begging,” O’Connor said with a smile.
The UKC has created a space where dignity and peace prevail, where good fruits are now being harvested. One guest who has been coming to the Kitchen for several years described the community as “homey, welcoming and just really, really nice. I always look forward to coming here.”
Out of the ashes
On June 28, King and O’Connor were enjoying an afternoon at a park together when a fire started at their home, Hesed House, on Palmer Avenue. King said it appears the fire was intentionally set. The flames reached from the picture window on the front porch to the attic.
The fire department responded quickly, but the front half of the house sustained significant damage. The porch, roof, windows and siding were ruined. O’Connor’s work area, which held “almost every record that was key to the UKC effort,” was affected, as was King’s extensive library.
With no fire insurance on the house, O’Connor and King began cleanup with the help of UKC members and friends. Records and books were salvaged, but the house was unlivable.
For two months, they lived in a partitioned-off corner of the Kitchen, returning to Hesed House to use the shower specially built to accommodate O’Connor’s wheelchair.
“We are just grateful that no one was hurt or killed,” O’Connor said. “And you can always replace a house.”
That is just what O’Connor and King intend to do.
King said the total cost of the restoration — exterior and interior — is projected to be between $100,000 and $140,000. A letter of appeal was sent to UKC supporters over the summer, and the community’s many friends and benefactors have contributed generously; to date, about $50,000 has been received.
“The fire has drawn out so many people and so much support,” O’Connor said. “We are so thankful.”
The couple has found temporary housing in a small apartment in East Syracuse while they work with a restoration company to remove and clean the contents of the house. A company has donated asbestos, mold and lead testing. A general contractor has been secured to complete “phase one” of the rebuilding efforts, which will include replacing the roof, windows, siding and porch before the Central New York winter settles in.
Restoring the interior of the house depends on receiving additional contributions, King said.
“We long to be back in the city, to be back in the community we serve,” he said. “But we believe in God’s promises. ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, then all these things will be added unto you’ [Mt 6:33].”
In the meantime, the couple and the UKC carry on their work, serving the poor with dignity, seeing the hidden Christ in all and facing every challenge with the words that have sustained them all these years:
“Peace of Christ.”
Contributions toward hospitality or rebuilding efforts can be sent to The Unity Kitchen Community of the Catholic Worker, 385 West Onondaga St., P.O. Box 650, Syracuse, N.Y. 13201. For more information, call (315) 478-5552.