Building a future for neighbors in need


Chris Schuermann stops at the glass door on the Republic Street side of the St. Anthony Messenger/Franciscan Media building.

"This will be the grand entrance," she says, imagining this spot a year from now. If all goes according to plan, this door will indeed lead to something grand – a center of services for the homeless and the working poor.

Chris, Executive Director of St. Francis Seraph Ministries in Over-the-Rhine, likes to dream big. And she’s pretty persuasive.

When she heard Franciscan Media was scaling back in-house operations and would need much less space, the wheels started to turn. Printing and shipping areas, the warehouse and a number of offices would all be vacant. What if that space could be used to consolidate the friar-sponsored Ministries now housed in three locations?

But the Ministries’ Soup Kitchen, Bag Lunch, Sarah Center and Cooking for the Family programs didn’t need all that room. So why not share the building with other non-profits? The friars embraced the idea. As it turned out, a number of faith-based agencies were looking for a home and the space was exactly what they needed.

The Province sees the property as a hub of helping services for neighbors in need. "It’s a win, win, win," says Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler, "a win for the Ministries, a win for Franciscan Media, a win for the neighbors – and good stewardship of the building."

It’s ‘providential’

A zoning variance approved in December moved the project a step closer to reality. Today, Chris leads a tour of the floors from top to bottom, showing the space to be leased by Franciscan Ministries, the Center for Respite Care and Franciscan Haircuts from the Heart.

The existing layout suits their needs so well that it’s "totally providential," she says.

Providential? Try "amazing".

"There are 17 private offices up here," says Chris, climbing the stairs to the third floor, where the Center for Respite Care plans to move its Medical Recovery Program, a convalescent facility for sick homeless people who might otherwise end up in a hospital ER. With the addition of window blinds, some rooms are move-in ready for patients. "We don’t have to change the design; it’s all here," Chris says. "Each office is the exact square footage of a patient’s room. Some of the offices are large enough for two clients."

All the patients on this floor – men on one side, women on the other – can use a community room to be located in the former library of Franciscan Media, as well as the interior courtyard where editorial employees once lunched. They’ll have a nursing/medical facility in the offices that were used by FM’s Internet team. Health education and counseling that helps the homeless transition to a more stable environment will be part of the healing process.

The space is a godsend for the Center, according to Chris. Currently occupying a building that’s "partially condemned," they’ve been looking to move for more than two years.

Body and soul

One floor down, the Republic Street side of the building will house Franciscan Haircuts from the Heart, fitting for a corridor once occupied by Franciscan Media’s Human Resources division. The resource provided here will be personal grooming from head (haircuts) to toe (foot care).

Founded 27 years ago by Sr. Bonnie Steinlage, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor, Haircuts ministers to the poor and homeless, the elderly and disabled with a service designed to enhance their dignity and elevate their spirits. Ironically, since the closing in December of the St. John Social Services building on Logan Street, Haircuts has been homeless as well.

Down the hall, the Nurse Outreach Program operated by TriHealth and connected to St. Francis Seraph Ministries has already moved in. "There are two nurses working here," doing home visits to pregnant women and the elderly, Chris says. From these offices, "They can triage somebody and send them to the hospital."

So with all the people coming and going and Franciscan Media now located in the west end of the building, how will they insure safety and maintain separation? "It’s our No. 1 priority," Chris says, explaining a system with multiple layers of security that includes coded key-cards, double-door entrances and metal detectors for the soup kitchen.

Hopes are high

Obviously for director Chris, the highlight of the tour is the ground-floor space for St. Francis Seraph Ministries. In the cavernous expanse of empty shelves and discarded equipment, she outlines an ambitious plan to expand services that will require sizable donations and some creative visualization.

The Sarah Center has moved from its Vine Street site (the old St. Francis Bookshop), with dozens of bolts of fabric already piled on one side of the former "book-picking" area. The sewing, quilting and jewelry making taught here have more than practical applications. Self-esteem, empowerment, sisterhood: All are the byproducts of learning a marketable skill.

The Bag Lunch program benefits day laborers who can’t afford the food sold at job sites and folks in transitional housing. "We’ve had a lot of requests to expand this program" beyond the 800 lunches prepared and distributed each week from the former Canticle Café at Liberty and Vine, Chris says. That’s doable in a facility with much more space for food storage. (In collaboration with Findlay Market, the Ministries’ Cooking for the Family program will have more mobile locations.)

St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen, long housed in the basement of St. Francis Seraph School, would move to the old print shop and a shipping area in the Media building. This would free the school space for after-hours programs and enhance security for the kids. Chris has high hopes for the new kitchen: seating for 250 guests; commercial equipment; dinner served five nights a week and the addition of breakfast.

"We really see this as a center not only to serve the poor but the whole neighborhood," particularly the growing number of working poor.

With the blessing of Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and the friars’ support – not to mention the enthusiasm of Chris, its biggest cheerleader – it seems this project was meant to be.

"Isn’t this exciting?" she says. And best of all, "It’s so Franciscan."