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Food of Love

The Generosity of the Capuchins

Since 1883, the friars of Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph in Detroit have been living, working, and supporting those struggling with getting enough to eat, overcoming substance abuse, finding employment, or other challenges. 

Its mission, inspired by the life and spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, is three-fold: To tend to its guests' basic needs, especially the need for food; to strive to inspire minds and nourish spirits; and to work toward lasting and meaningful change. They do this in several ways and through various programs that strengthen communities. 

A large part of bringing this mission to reality was accomplished through the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which served food during the Great Depression in 1929. Over 90 years later, it continues to provide nutritious meals, love, and hope to those who are hungry. 

In 2022, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen served over 150,000 meals at its Meldrum and Conner soup kitchens. At Meldrum, about 200 meals a day are served, totaling 52,000 per year. At the Conner kitchen, approximately 320 meals a day and 98,000 meals a year are served.

There are no eligibility requirements, and men, women, and children are all welcome in its clean and spacious settings. While Meldrum caters to mostly males experiencing homelessness and those diagnosed with mental health issues and/or suffering from substance abuse issues, Conner often sees more seniors and families, including young children, who account for about one-third of all meals served. 

"We serve two meals a day at our Meldrum Kitchen site and three meals a day at our Conner Kitchen site," says Brother Gary Wegner, its executive director. "Conner offers breakfast and lunch on Saturday, too." 

While the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph is a religious order, no proselytizing is done. "We have chaplains at both kitchens who offer a prayer before the meals, but there is no obligation to participate," he says. "It's usually very simple. We have a chapel at the Conner site and do a time for prayer service for those who wish to take part."  

Some food prepared in the soup kitchens comes from the order's 1.25-acre certified organic Earthworks Urban Farm on Detroit's east side. It is staffed and directed by neighborhood people who learned farming skills through the Earthworks program. The property the farm is set on is rented for $1.00 a year from Gleaners Community Food Bank, which was founded partly by one of Brother Gary's predecessors. 

The produce, which includes radishes, tomatoes, carrots, and various herbs, will be sold again at the Meldrum Fresh Market next year. 

The Capuchin Services Center is another venue where food is provided. It assists 228,000 Detroiters annually with emergency food (and clothing). The food pantry resembles a small grocery store, and guests can choose items based on their and their families' preferences. Each person is given a designated number of pounds of non-perishable food based on family size. Fresh vegetables, dairy items, bread, and other perishable foods are unlimited. This center distributes over 10,000 pounds of food each day. 

Another food-focused program part of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is the On The Rise Bakery Café, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Located at the Solanus Casey Center on Mt. Elliott, it's part of the ROPE (Reaching Our Potential Everyday) program. Everything from cookies, doughnuts, cakes, and bread to honey and deli items are on the menu. 

On the Rise is staffed by those recently released from prison or completed a substance use disorder treatment program. This bakery provides the skills and confidence to allow employees the opportunity to turn their lives around. It gives them a second chance at life. 

The Capuchin Soup Kitchen also offers catering services. Chef Alison will prepare meals made from scratch using local food and fresh produce for birthday and retirement parties and other special occasions. All profits go back to the soup kitchen. 

Since it doesn't receive government assistance, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen relies heavily on community support to fulfill its mission of giving to others. One of its significant supporters is Ahee Jewelers in Grosse Pointe Woods. In business for over 75 years, three generations of family members have owned and operated it. 

"My grandfather, Edmund T. Ahee Sr., founder of Ahee Jewelers, my grandmother, Bettejean, and their seven children founded the first Capuchin Souper Summer Celebration to benefit the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit in 1981," says Stefan Ahee, the vice president of the store. "My grandfather was born and raised in Detroit. He grew up during the Depression, living near Mt. Elliott and the Capuchin monastery, and witnessed people he knew receiving help from the Capuchins, which caused him to live his entire life with great sensitivity for the poor."

The Annual Capuchin Souper Summer Celebration at Comerica Park was held on Saturday, June 17. The event, which is free and open to the community, featured live music, incredible cuisine, a jewelry raffle offering over $30,000 in fine jewelry donated by Ahee Jewelers, and an impressive fireworks display at dusk. 

"It's an honor for our entire family to continue the legacy of charity and to celebrate with our friends and community," he says. "This year was our 42nd annual event, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the area's less fortunate through the generosity and tremendous support of the community." All jewelry and expenses are donated by the Ahee family, allowing 100% of the proceeds to go directly to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. 

Along with the Edmund T. Ahee Endowment Fund for Hunger, this event has raised millions of dollars to help provide food, clothing, substance abuse treatment, job training program, and tutoring services for thousands in Detroit through the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

"I recognize the tremendous reputation we have and the trust people put in us," says Brother Gary. "I get letters from donors that just touch my heart. Sometimes, these letters are from people on fixed incomes apologizing because they couldn't give more, which is awful. We're just so grateful for every amount." 

Some even relate their stories and the connections they have with the organization. "One elderly widow whose husband was a police officer told me that when she was a little girl in the 1930s, she remembered walking to the kitchen with her mother and asking her mother why they couldn't take the trolley, and her mother said because that was another nickel they could give to the soup kitchen. I consider myself fortunate to get to read these stories." 

In addition to money, people can also support the organization by going to its volunteer hub and signing up to give their time. "One of our volunteers just passed away; he was 91 years old," he says. The young can also get involved – the minimum age is 12, but the Earthworks program welcomes children as young as 7.

There are many volunteer opportunities available within the organization. In addition to individuals, groups from various churches, employees from corporations, and students from local colleges and universities have come in to help. Positions are available in every program and for every interest. An entire list of openings is available on its website. 

Volunteers are always appreciated for organizing their various fundraisers as well. Its 30th annual Benefit on the Bay dinner was held on August 25, and its next big one is the 50th Annual SOCK [Support Our Capuchin Kitchen] dinner on Friday, November 10. Tickets will be available on its website. Attending these events is a fun way to support the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph in Detroit.

To learn more, donate, and/or volunteer, go to CSKDetroit.org. 

“I recognize our tremendous reputation and the trust people put in us.”

“One of our volunteers just passed away; he was 91 years old.”

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