Five and a half years ago, Monsignor Richard Figliozzi invited the Pope Francis Hospitality Center to operate a food pantry and soup kitchen out of the former St. Vincent de Paul School in Elmont. But on Aug. 22, he sent a letter to the pantry’s director saying she must cease operations by the end of the year.
“In light of the recent interest of parties offering to buy the former school building, I have to inform you that the Pope Francis Hospitality Center can no longer operate in the St. Vincent de Paul school building,” the letter read. “Decisions of this nature are always very difficult to make and so I thank you in advance for your cooperation and understanding in this matter.”
The St. Vincent de Paul church and rectory were sold to the Syro-Malankara community in 2016, after the parish faced years of financial hardships and shrinking membership. The Syro-Malankara church is one of 23 autonomous Catholic churches that recognize the pope’s authority, but have their own bishops and archbishops. It is the first Syro-Malankara cathedral outside of India, and when the community bought the buildings from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, they agreed that the Roman Catholics could continue to celebrate Mass at the church.
The Syro-Malankara Catholics did not, however, purchase the school building, and Mary Joesten, the director of the hospitality center, said she does not know who the prospective buyers are — although she noted that the Syro-Malankara Catholics once expressed an interest in taking over the whole St. Vincent complex.
“In terms of what’s happening to the building, we don’t know,” she said. “You’re not dealing with people, you’re dealing with businesses.”
The Diocese of Rockville Centre could not be reached for comment as of press time.
The hospitality center
Joesten said she was “a little bit disappointed” when she received the eviction letter last month. She has been operating the soup kitchen in Elmont for the past few years and said of the experience, “we had a damn good run.”
The hospitality center is open every Saturday morning starting at 9, when Joesten and a number of other volunteers distribute hot breakfast to those in need. Then, at around 11:30, the volunteers start doling out lunch, which is typically some type of meat dish. Each of the more than 40 people who come in for lunch also receive 10 food items to take home, and can pick up clothes from the pantry. “We distribute everything we have,” Joesten said.
The volunteers, meanwhile, use many of their own resources, and receive a lot of support from their friends and family. Most of the groceries are donated by Island Harvest and Trader Joe’s, while the clothes come from people in the community. They also run an annual auction, where they can typically raise several thousand dollars.
The food is cooked by Lucy Nigro, who once owned her own luncheonette. She said she loves to cook, which is why she continues to prepare the food for the guests every week. “If I’m not here to cook, I’m cooking for the church, I’m cooking for friends, if somebody opens their mouth, I’ll put food in there,” Nigro joked.
Those who volunteer in the kitchen all received Nassau County Department of Health training, and the kitchen is in compliance with the department’s standards.”Our kitchen is so clean, you could eat off the floor,” Joesten said.
During the holiday season, the center will typically give out 90 turkeys and let the children unwrap gifts. This year, however, the hospitality center will hold a joint Thanksgiving and Christmas event before the soup kitchen closes its doors for the last time.
“I’m hoping Thanksgiving will be our last hurrah,” Joesten said, “and we can start somewhere new for Christmas.”
She explained that late November would be a good time to leave because, under the Department of Health’s new standards, every kitchen must have three sinks, which would cost the pantry more than $8,000. Additionally, she said, leaving after Christmas like the letter Figliozzi said, would be harder for those who depend on the soup kitchen.
“Most of these people, will be crying when they find out I’m leaving,” Joesten said.
She added that she has begun looking for new places to house the hospitality center, and said, “I’m willing to go wherever we’re needed.”