San Francisco parish's pews provide homeless with peace, respite

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.
A man sleeps upon a pew in St. Boniface Church in San Francisco (Jeanette Antal)
A man sleeps upon a pew in St. Boniface Church in San Francisco (Jeanette Antal)

by Dan Morris-Young

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Reader responses to "Field Hospital" reports on grassroots efforts to support homeless persons have been edifying to NCR and inspirational to other giving communities.

Speaking of inspirational, more than one reader called our attention to the outside-the-box outreach in San Francisco, The Gubbio Project, based at St. Boniface Church in the heart of the city's Tenderloin -- a roughly 40-square block patch of poverty known for drugs, prostitution, homelessness and crime.

Heading into its 12th year, The Gubbio Project's signature activity is opening the back two-thirds of St. Boniface Church on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. to those living on the streets so they can sleep or rest in safety and security. Meanwhile, the two daily Masses are celebrated in the front of the church nearer the altar.

"The aspect of the ministry that I like the most is that it happens while the church is open and Masses are being celebrated. Too often, poor people, if they are allowed space at all, are given space that is not being used. Here, the parish is using the space and is inviting the homeless people to come and share the space with them," Laura Slattery, The Gubbio Project executive director, told NCR.

"The fact that two Masses occur while 110 people are sleeping in the back two-thirds of the pews, sends a powerful message to the people who are worshiping at Mass that their community includes those who are marginalized, cold, transgender, mentally ill, and very poor," Slattery added.

"And, at the same time, it sends the message to those who are homeless that they are welcome, that they are not invisible, and that they have as much right to beauty -- St. Boniface is gorgeous inside -- warmth, calmness, and sacred space as anyone else. So much healing happens because of that. "

Slattery said the project "sees an average of about 250 people a day -- with about 110 sleeping or resting at any given time in the morning and about 75 in the afternoon. Others come in to use the bathroom, talk to a volunteer or chaplain, or to access some emergency or essential supplies such as toiletries, socks, blankets, aspirin, Band-Aids, razors or plastic bags."

Staff also provide referrals to multiple agencies and organizations for specialized help. 

Asked how their guests might spend the balance of their days, Slattery said, "Everyone is different. The vast majority stay on the streets. ... Some are working, others are attending to appointments ... or standing in line to get food. Some spend time at the library when it is open, or at the drop-in center at Hospitality House which is around the corner."

St. Boniface also participates in the San Francisco Interfaith Council's Winter Shelter program for men. Only about a 10-minute walk away, St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral also takes part. The two Catholic congregations are joined by nearby St. Mark's Lutheran and First Unitarian as the winter program's four overnight sites.

In a kind of poverty-level moveable feast, 60 to 100 men are provided nightly dinner and breakfast at one of those four sites from the last Sunday before Thanksgiving through February. For example, St. Boniface was the first host site from Nov. 22 to Dec. 11.

St. Mark's opened its facilities to the men for the next four days, and then St. Mary Cathedral welcomed 100 men through Jan. 16. St. Mark stepped back into the picture and hosted the men until Feb. 6. First Unitarian is the final winter location until the end of February. 

The interfaith operation depends on a coordinated effort among the four host-sites, 40 meal-providing congregations, shelter staff provided by Episcopal Community Services and the San Francisco Night Ministry, and San Francisco's Human Services Agency.

Ironically, St. Mary Cathedral came under global media glare last March when a local television broke the story of the church having installed a water sprinkling system to discourage persons from sleeping in church doorways. The archdiocese apologized and the water system was dismantled. Few of the news reports mentioned the cathedral's long-standing role in the homeless shelter work.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR's West Coast correspondent. His email is]

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"

If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris-Young ( or Peter Feuerherd (

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