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Some young members of St. Mary’s Fife and Drum Corps introduce themselves, with the encouragement of co-organizer Joan Pirtel (standing, center) to a group of guests including nine New Haven homeless men, brought in to shelter from the winter weather from Feb. 2 – Feb. 9 as part of the church’s annual Abraham’s Tent effort. (Pam Johnson )
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Imagine facing winter’s driving snow, bitterly frigid winds and icy, sub-zero temps –and not knowing if you will have a warm dinner and safe place to spend the night.
For past week, nine New Haven homeless men didn’t have to face the cold alone, thanks to the warmth, friendship, food and shelter provided by members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Branford, as part of Abraham’s Tent. The program started up on Feb. 2 and ends after today, Feb. 9.
Each of the men were handpicked for the program by Columbus House of New Haven. Each man is also trying to work his way toward rebuilding his life, while dealing with a lack of housing that makes keeping a job, or finding a job, that much more difficult.
Columbus House offers the men daily options, from computer use to community connections, which they can use to find work or take care of other matters while they spend their day in New Haven. Some of the men have work already. If they are selected for Abraham’s Tent, they know they will have transportation to weekly host church sites where they will be provided food and shelter in order to stay safe and off the streets during the night from November through March.
Together with Alice Hine, parishioners Joan Pirtel and Janyce Gilman were the first three members of St. Mary’s to take on the task of bringing Abrahams Tent here. They contacted Columbus House in 2010, just one year after Abraham’s Tent began. With training, organization and plenty of support and volunteers, St. Mary’s had its first group of men come to Branford for a week’s stay in 2011.
That year, St. Mary’s was the only Catholic Church offering a shoreline satellite location. Now, this Branford group has recruited others to open their doors and put up Abraham’s Tent at their churches.
“We felt so strongly about the program that we got three other Catholic churches to join in this year – St. George’s in Guilford, St. Therese in Stony Creek and St. Stephen’s in Hamden,” said Pirtel.
At St. Mary’s, Abraham’s Tent volunteers prepare a home-cooked dinner and serve it to the men each night. The church community is so enthusiastic about helping this year, “...we had 12 families sign up for seven nights, so we had to have a lottery and the winners got to cook the meals,” said Hines.
This year’s program kicked off with a heavy, somewhat unexpected snowfall on Feb. 2 and two families braved the weather to pull together the night’s meal of smoked turkey; with some of them staying on the volunteer job from about 1 p.m. until 10 p.m. that night, said Pirtel. It's ending much the same way, with icy, stormy weather hitting Branford on Feb. 9. No matter the weather, Pirtel said St. Mary's is committed to continuing to assist now and in years to come.
“We have a whole new group of committed volunteers who I’m happy to say will be taking this on next year, while Janyce, Alice and I will be stepping back a bit. It’s been a fast five years!" Pirtel said.
All told, about 200 St. Mary’s volunteers signed up to help set up, clean up, cook and provide other services required to keep the men comfortable from the time they’d arrive each night (approximately 5 p.m.) until they’d leave the next morning, bound for their day in New Haven. The group also provided breakfast for the men to start their day.
Each night, St. Mary’s parishioners, often assisted by students and families from St. Mary’s Catholic School, organized entertainment for the men, and would stay to share friendly card games, board games or just conversation it was time to turn in for the night (on cots provided in a separate part of the Parish Hall). On Feb. 3, after a dinner of ham, rice, sweet potatoes, baked beans, carrots and homemade pies for dessert, the night’s entertainment included a serenade by about one-third of the 29-member St. Mary’s School Fife & Drum Corps, made up of players in grades three through eight.
One guest was so pleased with the performance, he came over to shake the hand of director Brendan Mason, asking “...if I join the group, will you teach me how to play the drums?”
“It brings our community together,” said Pirtel, watching the interaction with a smile on her face.
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