After Xavier de la Huerta a native of Brownsville, Texas, and veteran of the United States Navy Reserve, professed solemn vows as a friar on July 15, 1965 the Franciscan Brother, now with OFM after his name, was first assigned to The Holy Name Province retreat house in Rye Beach, N.H. The perceptive guardian there told Brother Xavier de la Huerta, OFM, that he believed the Lord was calling him for a full-time ministry with the poor and suggested he consider joining a new ministry in the inner city of Philadelphia.
When Bro. Xavier arrived at St. Francis Inn in 1981, in the rundown Kensington district, his assignment was to clean the bathrooms and do other maintenance work around the house. After three months, he said, “Lord, what does this have to do with your message? All I am doing is cleaning toilets. What does that have to do with me telling the poor that you love them?”
Later, as he began to meet the growing number of people who turned to the Inn for help, the humble friar began to understand why the Lord had placed him there. Ministering at St. Francis Inn Bro. Xavier meets people from all walks of life, people who are homeless, people involved in prostitution, drugs and other addictions. At one point he asked one of the guests, “You do not know me, why are you telling me all of this?” The guest replied, “Well, my experience has been that you do not judge me.”
Bro. Xavier is in charge of several ministries at St. Francis Inn. He provides the service of what the community calls Jesus’ Taxi. Jesus’ Taxi is a free taxi service, provided by the friar for the elderly and handicapped poor, who would otherwise not be able to get to the laundromat, the hospital or store. He also started his “Token” ministry for persons who could not afford the city transportation system.
To fund the ministry, Bro. Xavier says he “scraps metal.” The scrapping metal project involves collecting cans, pipes and other objects made of aluminum, brass or copper and selling his collection to scrap dealers. The sale enables the friar to purchase the tokens for the bus and train at wholesale rate to give out to those in need.
Bro. Xavier laughs when he tells the story of a guest who came into the friary, cut some copper pipes out and then sold them to the friar. Another time, the friar was digging through trash for aluminum cans when a homeless man came up and asked, “Brother, are you hungry? Can I get you something?” In the early days, before his current transportation services, Bro. Xavier also ran an overnight shelter at the Inn for homeless men. With little staff, he tried to instill a family atmosphere at the shelter. He banned profanity and instructed staff and volunteers working with him to treat all guests, even unruly ones, as their brothers.
Bro. Xavier said that there was a good sense of humor at the shelter. One day, the neighbor’s chicken flew over the fence, and one of the guests captured it, killed it, and said, “Brother, look what God sent us!”
Another story involved visitors in the night. One morning around 3 a.m., Bro. Xavier woke to hear loud knocking on the door. He shouted, “Stop that knocking, or we will call the cops!” They replied, “We are the cops!” The police sometimes visited the shelter in search of somebody for whom they were on the lookout and sometimes found.
Bro. Xavier himself got in trouble with the law. He was called to court for housing 50 men in the shelter when legally there should have been only 12. The judge set his bail at $1,000, and asked, “What are you going to do now?” Bro. Xavier replied, “The Lord will provide,” and the Lord did. A lawyer friend of the Inn took the case pro bono and got the friar off with a stern warning.
In the late 1970s, Father Rodney Petrie, OFM, with Fathers Emmet Murphy, OFM, and the late Robert Struzynski, OFM, came to the Kensington neighborhood. The friars did not choose Kensington at random; it was carefully picked. Many factories had closed, and families who could afford it moved to the suburbs. Liquor stores and bars and a few small grocery stores stayed open in this once thriving community. With a vision to “live a simple lifestyle with an emphasis on prayer, poverty, and witness,” the friars opened St. Francis Inn in December 1979 to meet the needs of the poor and downtrodden, including families hard hit by unemployment, addiction and other problems.
After 17 years of operation and with the city offering its own shelters, the friars closed down the shelter part of the Inn’s services. Over the years, the Inn has made a significant impact on the neighborhood. Today, the Inn with a staff of 18 (including six Franciscan Friars, two Franciscan Sisters, five permanent lay persons, and five lay volunteers who sign up for a year, and a host of student and other volunteers) serves some 350 restaurant-style nutritious meals every evening of the year and breakfast three days per week. The guests pay nothing, and all provisions are donated by generous benefactors.
In addition to providing meals, the Franciscan project also provides resources to find housing (St. Francis Urban Center), a day center for women (Thea Bowman Women’s Center), and a thrift store (St. Benedict’s Thrift Store).
Father Steve Patti, OFM, who has served on Inn’s staff for the past two years, describes Bro. Xavier as “a throwback to the early days of St. Francis and his followers. Everyone on the street knows him, and he loves them all.” Others, touched by his jovial personality, compare him to the fictional Friar Tuck, in the movie version of Robin Hood’s jolly band.
When asked if he ever felt afraid or threatened, the stocky, Bro. Xavier replied, “Yes,” he recalled one day an agitated guest stopped me to tell his story. At the time, I was very busy, but I still tried to give him as much time as I could. Later, the same guest told me, ‘You know, Brother, I was going to kill you if you had not listened to me.’” On another occasion, Bro. Xavier was held up at gunpoint outside of the shelter. The robber lifted the $50 in the friar’s pocket, much more than he ordinarily carried.
The 78-year-old friar, a cornerstone at St. Francis Inn, has seen many changes in the Kensington community changes in the youth, the married couples, and the college students. The friar remembers a guest who had a drug problem. Years later, he saw the man again, and by that time the man had gotten his life together and now serves as a school principal.
Bro. Xavier knows that he is not a saint, and like all humans he does get tired and has moments of fault and impatience. One day a guest told him, “Brother, you tell us that Jesus came to set us free, but you do not look free yourself.” The friar confesses that at times the job can be very hard, and he gets depressed, but he explains that he knows the remedy is to deepen his life of prayer and sense of God’s presence. He emphasizes however, that the vast majority of his days are positive. The friar says he enjoys his ministry with the poor for the past 33 years and has no regrets. He believes that being a part of St. Francis Inn means “sharing the love and mercy of our loving God.” After all, the way of St. Francis is to find God by being with the poor.
-This article was written in 2014 by Marisa McCabe. [Marisa McCabe is currently an undergraduate student dual majoring in graphic design and sculpture at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. She interned for the Anthonian during the summer of 2014.]