It seems appropriate that the St. Anthony Foundation traces its origin to an auto shop because it’s an engine that has never stopped running.
There just aren’t many organizations that could put together a weekend gathering with 10,000 meals of barbecue chicken or line up enough servers to make sure that everyone is properly fed. But the foundation built to aid the poor and suffering does it every minute of every day, which is why it may be the most treasured agency in the annals of San Francisco.
Saturday the organization celebrated its 60th anniversary, a festive bookmark that linked The City’s past with its present. San Francisco has long been an affluent city, but its true richness lies in its compassionate character. Whether it is dealing with AIDS or addiction, few cities offer more services to help people rebuild their lives, and St. Anthony’s remains the model for all that followed.
The organization has been housed in the same physical plant since its humble beginnings in postwar San Francisco, yet it stands as one of the world’s cathedrals of kindness. It’s taken a simple mission and honed it with remarkable precision, providing food, shelter, clothing and job training to the masses of the needy.
“From the beginning, our message has always been about hope,” said Shari Roeseler, St. Anthony’s executive director. “In tough times that’s one of the first things people lose.”
They come to a familiar place in the Tenderloin to find it. There is no proper way to describe its impact over six decades, though the numbers provide a snapshot of its steady service. This year, St. Anthony’s served its 37 millionth meal to the hungry and homeless, a heartfelt measure reached through the volunteer and philanthropic efforts of tens of thousands.
In 1950, San Francisco, like many American cities, was feeling the robustness of the boom years, building new homes and skyrises with all the speed good credit and optimism could offer. St. Anthony’s was started to deal with those lurking in prosperity’s dark shadow.
A Franciscan friar named Alfred Boeddeker saw the downside, and was inspired by a statue in the church at St. Boniface that showed St. Anthony giving a piece of bread to a poor stranger.
“Something hit me: Why don’t you do that?” the friar said, according to a history compiled by the archdiocese.
So much for passing thoughts. Boeddeker, then the pastor at St. Boniface, opened the dining room on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis. “The Miracle of Jones Street’’ has been a meal factory ever since, hardly changed, if continually updated.
But the anchor in The City’s social service network will finally get the overhaul it has long needed. Earlier this year, the foundation announced it is launching a $21 million fundraising campaign to construct part of a 10-story building at the intersection of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue, with the first floor the site of a new dining room while the second will house St. Anthony’s other programs. The upper floors will include 90 units of low-income senior housing. (For more information about how to donate, visit www.stanthonysf.org.)
That’s the real cause for the celebration around City Hall this weekend, with a block party, music and exhibits outlining St. Anthony’s 60-year history. For all its great work, it still must rely on the kindness of strangers. All those meals, all that clothing, and all the equipment have been provided through private funding. And the foundation gets about 10,000 volunteers each year to aid it in its mission.
“I think it’s the hallmark of who we are,” Roeseler said. “It’s a model in the way that it’s organized and how it carries out its programs. Father Boeddeker insisted on never calling it a soup kitchen. It was always a dining room and people were to be treated as if they were coming to our home for dinner.”
They don’t have to guess who’s coming to dinner at St. Anthony’s, they know: Everyone — those to feed and those to serve. It’s San Francisco’s own civic commune, with a colorful cast of brown-smocked friars.
Sixty years is a good benchmark to realize that compassion and kindness never go out of style.
Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at email@example.com.