The Samaritan Center — where those in need in Syracuse can find free meals and a caring community — celebrated its 33rd anniversary May 23. But May 22 also marked a major milestone for the organization: the purchase of the former St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church for its future home.
The Samaritan Center began serving meals to the hungry in 1981 through the volunteer efforts of seven local faith communities. Since the beginning, it has operated out of the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Montgomery Street in downtown Syracuse.
Today the nonprofit organization — run by seven staff members and a corps of some 800 volunteers each month — provides dinner service to about 170 guests every afternoon and breakfast to about 140 each weekday. A staff member also provides case management services, helping to connect guests with shelter, employment and mental health resources.
“What we’re about here is creating community,” Samaritan Center Executive Director Mary Beth Frey recently told the Sun. “If you think about your own relationships, so much of your relating happens around the dinner table or over a meal where you’re talking to folks. That’s what we try to create here, using a nutritious meal as a place where people connect. We have what’s really a family down here, between the guests and the volunteers and staff. It’s a place where people find support that don’t find it in a lot of other places.”
The Samaritan Center’s guests range from week-old babies to 90-year-old men and everyone in between, Frey said. About a third are homeless or living in shelters; another third are facing a crisis, such as an eviction or layoff; another third live with some type of disability and “rely on us to make everyday life work,” she explained.
The organization sees an 8 to 9 percent increase annually in the number of guests served. That increasing need coupled with the physical constraints of the basement space — a small kitchen and dining area, no access for those with disabilities, no air conditioning in the steamy summer months, limited space for families with strollers — led the Samaritan Center to begin the process of looking for a new location about two and a half years ago, Frey said.
The organization identified a space on Syracuse’s North side last fall, but “met with some neighborhood resistance in terms of us being in that location, so we decided to step away,” Frey said.
Around that time, the organization heard that St. John’s had become available. The church, at North State and Willow Streets on the North side, was closed and merged with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 2010. Brennan Stained Glass Studio rented the building from the diocese beginning in 2010 and relocated in September of 2013.
Msgr. Neal Quartier is rector of the Cathedral, just a block away from the Samaritan Center. “Mary Beth and I had been talking for a long time about spaces that were available,” he said. “We both thought it [St. John’s] would be a great fit.”
The Samaritan Center has purchased the former church for $175,000, Frey said, and plans to undertake an estimated $500,000 in renovations. Those efforts will include updating the boiler and electrical system, creating accessible restrooms, building kitchen and office space, and outfitting the former sanctuary as a dining room.
The former church is an ideal space for the Samaritan Center, Frey noted, not just because of its size and central location — some 30 percent of the organization’s guests come from the North side — but because of its history.
“One thing that strikes you when you walk in — there’s a peace that’s visceral. There’s a strength and comfort that guests will draw from that. Many folks we serve are very, very spiritual and their faith is really important to them. To be able to continue to serve in a sacred space not only means a lot to us, but will mean an unbelievable amount to our guests,” she said. She added that the renovation plans are aimed at “interfering as little as possible” with the original structure and beauty of the building.
Frey also said that the organization will take steps to address safety and security concerns voiced by some of its future neighbors — concerns that she said the Samaritan Center shares.
“We have done extensive planning to make sure we address them [concerns] as best as possible, including looking at updating crosswalks and crossing lights, how we monitor the street, where trash bins would be, increasing lighting, putting up security cameras, not only for the safety of the neighborhood, but of the building and the guests,” she said.
The Samaritan Center will launch a capital campaign to raise funds for the renovation, Frey said, and hopes to begin operating in the new space by the end of 2014. She is looking forward to engaging volunteers, guests and new neighbors in the transition process, helping them to see that the new space “will be home as well.”
“In any neighborhood we’re in, even if we’re fully embraced, a continuing responsibility that we have is to help people understand what hunger’s about, what poverty’s about, what brings people into needing service and what we can each do to impact those things, even if it’s just a small thing,” Frey said. “People hear ‘hunger’ and think, ‘My God, I can’t fix it.’ But two hours down here — you’ve made an amazing difference in the lives of 200 people by smiling, acknowledging they exist, acknowledging they have value and giving them hope.”
The Samaritan Center invites comments from the community as it develops its plans for relocation and renovation. Visit www.samcenter.org by June 1 to submit your comments.