Cathedral Oxford Inn Breakfast program offers support to the homeless

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Johnny Hawkins stepped in out of the rain on a recent dark, dreary day for a hot breakfast and some fellowship at the Cathedral Parish Center in Syracuse through the Cathedral Oxford Inn Breakfast Program.

Hawkins lives at the Oxford Inn, a shelter for homeless men in Syracuse. Hawkins, who has struggled with bouts of depression and alcohol and drug addiction, has been frequenting the weekly breakfast at the center ever since its inception.

The Cathedral Oxford Inn Breakfast Program, which provides breakfast for the residents of the Oxford Inn, celebrated its 20th anniversary Oct. 22. Sister Joyce Nevola, DC, who was parish minister at Syracuse’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, started the program in October 1989.

“Our main goal of the breakfast program is not to serve food,” wrote Sister Joyce in an early letter to the volunteers of the program.

“The main goal is to offer the men the encouragement and opportunity to get off the streets, get a job or education and feel good about themselves. The breakfast program provides a place where that can happen. Only in a community of caring and deepening relationships can trust grow and risks be taken to enable the men to move beyond their present circumstances,” she continued.

Hawkins said the breakfast gathering, on Wednesdays at 8 a.m., provides a warm, home-like setting for the men. “I’ve made some life-long friends through the program,” he said. “It’s also good to know that we’re not alone in going through this. They’re willing to listen to us”

“It has filled a need for me,” said Hawkins. “Knowing that we can count on a good breakfast     has made a difference in the way we start our day. This has been a real help for us.”

Sister Joyce, realizing that the men were isolated, assigned eight volunteers to sit with them at breakfast to listen to them and determine their needs. The volunteers learned that one of the men’s greatest obstacles was lack of a form of identification.

Peter Parrillo, director of Cathedral Emergency Services and the breakfast program, said the program has obtained over 700 birth certificates and many more sheriff identification cards for the men over the years, enabling them to apply for jobs and social services. Unfortunately, 9/11 created a tremendous rise in the cost of birth certificates and it became economically impossible to continue the service. The cost for a birth certificate in Onondaga County is $30.

“We have provided clothing, underwear, hats, daily coffee and donuts, and through working with Catholic Charities and their counselors, have provided rooms, apartments and jobs for hundreds of former residents of the Oxford Inn,” said Parrillo.

Parrillo remembered how Sister Joyce said, “A community of caring will enable the men to rise above their circumstances.”

“I’ve tried to encourage this,” said Parrillo. “I see wonderful acts of love all day long. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”

The Cathedral funds the breakfast program and much of the food is donated by Sysco Food Services of Syracuse.

The volunteers serve the men eggs, ham, sausage, toast, juice, coffee and grits at the weekly gathering.

“We want these people to be treated with dignity,” said Parrillo. “You see God’s work every day down here.”

The dedicated group of volunteers arrives as early as 5 a.m. to begin preparing the breakfast. Henry Centore, a parishioner at St. Ann’s Church in Syracuse, has served at the breakfast almost from the very beginning and has found it very gratifying. “It’s fun,” he said. “I enjoy the fellowship of the people I volunteer with. The comradery among the volunteers is great.”

Volunteer Paul Daily said he heard about the opportunity to volunteer in the Cathedral bulletin five years ago and he has been helping out ever since. “I like the fellowship of the volunteers and of the men,” said Daily.

Bruce Herbig, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s Church in East Syracuse, has volunteered for the last two years. He cooks and does whatever else is needed. “It’s been a great experience to get to meet wonderful people such as these,” said Herbig. “The generosity of the volunteers has kept this program going for years.”

Oxford resident Charles Robinson said he has benefited from the breakfast program on and off for the last two years. In the warmer months of the year, he displays his musical talent by playing his saxophone at Columbus Circle in Syracuse at lunch time.

“Because of my circumstances, I am staying at the Oxford Inn,” said Robinson. “I’m looking forward to becoming more independent and getting my own place.” He views the breakfast program as a blessing and enjoys the courtesy and hospitality that is shown to him when he visits.

Hawkins shares Robinson’s wish for a better life. “This program helps you get on the right track and to have a better life,” said Hawkins. “It’s a good program and I hope it continues. I hope I can volunteer in the future when I get on my feet.”

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