‘It’s a beautiful thing’: Meet the friars feeding the hungry during the pandemic
Friar Benet’s Kitchen in Canning Town, East London, England. | Mazur/cbcew.org.uk.
CNA Staff, Apr 9, 2021 / 03:00 am
In an area of London that attracts few tourists, even at the best of times, there is a place called Friar Benet’s Kitchen. It’s not, as you might expect, a restaurant with a sign featuring a jolly medieval monk holding up a flagon of ale.
But it is an eatery imbued with an ancient monastic spirit. You can trace its roots all the way back to St. Francis, who lived among the poor of Assisi.
Fr Christopher Joseph McBride, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, told CNA in an interview that the soup kitchen in Canning Town, East London, has fed the hungry for the past 20 years.
While friars serve food, volunteers kneel in prayer in a simple chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.
“We’re very conscious that, you know, we feed people, but the real desire is to bless them spiritually,” the priest, who is responsible for the kitchen, said.
While the friars pray that every visitor will have a life-changing encounter with Jesus, they are happy if their guests simply feel blessed by their visit.
“We always pray at the beginning and the end of the kitchen for everybody who’s coming, for their needs, for employment, for housing, for freedom from addiction,” McBride explained.
“And then that prayer continues when we start serving the food. We have what we call an adoration rota. So while the food is being served, some of the volunteers are able to go in and have adoration at the same time.”
When the coronavirus pandemic swept England in March 2020, the friars were not spared.
“With the very first lockdown we were actually sick ourselves,” McBride recalled. “One of the friars was particularly sick, bless him. We had the paramedics out for him. We really thought he might be taken into hospital. But we gave him the Anointing of the Sick and he fully recovered.”
The community, which is based at St. Fidelis Friary, decided to close the kitchen temporarily until they could ensure that it was safe for visitors, who they refer to as “patrons.”
When restrictions began to ease in July 2020, they reopened, serving food in the yard, complete with masks, gloves, and social distancing.
This being England, the friars soon discovered that they were at the mercy of sudden downpours.
“We realized as soon as we came out of the summer that we had an issue that there was no covering,” McBride said. “We were all just outside and everybody was going to get soaked very quickly as soon as the weather changes.”
So in September 2020, the community set up three outdoor shelters.
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“They provide covering, which is the main thing, which enables us to run the kitchen. Outside is the handing out of the food in the bags. Some people stay and eat the food under the shelter or any place they feel comfortable to sit down if it’s not raining,” he noted.
The soup kitchen is based in a former parish hall built after the First World War for St. Margaret’s, Canning Town, in the Diocese of Brentwood.
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, established in 1987 in the Archdiocese of New York, moved to the area in the year 2000, drawn by the opportunity to serve London’s poor.
The soup kitchen played a role in McBride’s own vocation story.
“It was the first friary that I ever visited when I was discerning the friars,” he said. “I came down to visit them and they were running the soup kitchen. At that time, we were also assisting with a homeless shelter.”
According to a profile in the newspaper of New York archdiocese, McBride, who was born in Nottingham, England, entered the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in 2004, professing his final vows in 2009.
He spent two years training for the priesthood at Allen Hall in London, followed by four years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, Yonkers.
He was ordained to the priesthood in 2015, concelebrating his first Mass at St. Adalbert’s Church in the Bronx. (He later celebrated a thanksgiving Mass at his childhood parish in Ilkeston, Derbyshire.)
The soup kitchen is in the London borough of Newham, where 52% of children are deemed to be living in poverty, compared to the London average of 38%.
McBride said that before the pandemic, there were signs that the area was becoming slightly more affluent, but the pandemic changed that. He noted that the local parish had opened a food bank to support people during the coronavirus crisis.
“They’ve been having several hundred people coming by,” he said. “I think up to something like 400 in a week, which points to the fact that people are in need.”
“I know people that have lost jobs or are buying things on the credit,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the fullness of what the pandemic is going to bring. It’s been in the papers that the U.K. could have its worst recession for 300 years. I’m no economist, but you wonder: how do you pay the furlough and everything else? It feels to my mind that we’re kind of in the middle of the COVID economic storm.”
Friar Benet’s Kitchen is reliant on donations. Some of the food comes from a charity called City Harvest London, which collects goods from restaurants and delivers them to the soup kitchen. Other items are provided by generous locals. People can also support the kitchen via the friars’ website.
McBride advises Catholics to make an extra effort to seek out the poor during the pandemic.
“It’s the call of every Christian to do anything we can for the least of our brothers, anybody who’s struggling,” he said.
“When you see somebody, always try to offer them some food. Or, if you’re in a city, know where are the food places they can go to. Especially for the homeless, just stop and greet them.”
At Friar Benet’s Kitchen, the friars welcome people of all faiths, as well as non-believers.
“Overall, the desire is, wherever people are at, to bless and encourage them and lead them closer to the truth of that encounter, that relationship with Jesus,” reflected McBride, who concluded his term as director of the kitchen at the end of March.
“That’s the same for all of us, whether you’re running it or you’re a volunteer. And I think that’s the beauty of the work.”
“We know that what we’re doing, we’re doing for Christ. And that’s what gives a sense of fulfillment and joy and coming closer to Christ. Whichever way you’re serving or receiving, we know it’s coming from and leading us to Christ. It’s a beautiful thing.”