The decade between 1929 and 1939, a period known as The Great Depression, was the worst economic downturn America has ever seen. With millions of people “laid off” from work, men and women trudged from door to door in all kinds of weather, vainly seeking employment. By the middle of 1934, it is estimated that about 300,000 families and individuals, representing about one-sixth of the population of Greater New York, were on some form of public relief. New York, the richest city in the world, faced a growing relief burden, and a grave uncertainty as to where the money would come from to pay for it. Soon the front door of St. Francis of Assisi Monastery was besieged by a growing number of hapless men and women begging for food, clothing, or money.
By September 25, 1930, so great a number of applicants for charity called at the monastery that Brother Gabriel Mehler, the porter, decided to have two sessions of almsgiving begin on the following day: one in the morning at 10 o’clock, and again in the afternoon at 3 o’clock.
When Brother Gabriel opened the door of the monastery on September 26, 1930, he little realized that he was beginning a form of organized charity for which St. Francis of Assisi Church would soon become internationally famous. Before him stood 186 persons patiently waiting for the small sum of money and sandwiches which Brother Gabriel had prepared for them. In this queue of people gripped in the bonds of poverty were men and women, young and old, some tattered and others still respectably attired, but all showing unmistakable signs of hunger and need. It was a sad task for the gentle Franciscan almoner, for the slender funds at his disposal did not permit him to give more than a nickel to each person in the line.
The so-called breadline continued to grow rapidly, and less than three weeks later the number of daily applicants had reached 840. From September 26 until October 14, 1930, no less than 8,772 persons called at the monastery seeking alms.
The New York Catholic News of November 22, 1930, records that on Sunday, November 16, the number of persons fed at the Franciscan Monastery was 4,376. “The rain was coming down in torrents and the men were wet to the skin, but Brother Gabriel also stood in the rain until the last man on the line had received his dole,” it declares. “During the past week Brother Gabriel met with a strong ally in his work of charity when the 307th Infantry, A.E.F., set up a canteen in front of the church and gave to every man on the breadline a cup of coffee and a sandwich. This with the coin given by Brother Gabriel is of real assistance to the hungry men.”
The U.S. Army field rolling kitchen, veteran of the French battlefields, rumbled over the pavements of Manhattan from the Governor’s Island ferry to the little church in the fur district of Manhattan. Here a group of World War I veterans, members of the old 307th Infantry, built a fire in the kitchen, and by 10 o’clock had made coffee for 3,000 hungry men who filed by the canteen. With the coffee the veterans handed out bread, rolls, cakes, and pie. The Godwin Construction Company built the canteen; Cushman’s Bakery and Duvernoy Bakery gave the rolls, cakes and pies; Seaman Brothers, the sugar; Jerome Lewine, the coffee; and Borden’s, the milk.
The breadline brought forth many evidences of the charity that lies in the hearts of most people. One day a prosperous man called at the monastery and said to Brother Gabriel: “I am going to Florida tomorrow and intend to spend the rest of the winter there. Here, take this overcoat and give it to some poor fellow who needs it.”
Contributions for the breadline came from many distant places. C. R. Manchester, a salesman from Chevy Chase, Md., and a frequent visitor to New York, stopping at the Hotel Governor Clinton near St. Francis of Assisi Church, made several contributions to the upkeep of Brother Gabriel’s charities, and on one visit to the city, Mr. Manchester, who is a Protestant and a Mason, filled his car with clothing for the poor men of St. Francis’ breadline.
Girls of Troop 151 of the Manhattan Girl Scouts, after a talk by their field captain, Miss Genevieve Fizzell, decided to convert their nickel and dime dues into 32 loaves a week for the breadline. One very generous friend in New Jersey sent a check to Brother Gabriel large enough to support the breadline for two days.
With the generous contributions sent to Brother Gabriel, supplemented with the offerings collected in the poor boxes erected in both the upper and lower churches, and another poor box firmly fastened to the iron fence in front of the monastery, it was possible for the good Brother to replace the nickel dole with the more substantial ten-cent piece.
“When the Franciscan Fathers have food,” wrote William Engle, New York Telegram staff writer, “donations from manufacturers or other concerns—they add that to the dimes. Yesterday with each dime went a loaf of bread—as long as the bread lasted. Another day there was coffee. Sometimes there are dainties from restaurants. Then the men’s eyes get afire.”
For more than eighty years later, Franciscan Bread for the Poor continues to serve the needy and the hungry on their breadline; they continue to alight eyes afire with good food, and, more importantly, with hope.