Serving Our Lord from ‘the catacombs’

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By Frank Sinatra

Joe and Bunny Franco of Ventnor have been running the food bank ministry at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, Atlantic City, for 15 years. They are pictured with Msgr. William Hodge, pastor of St. Nicholas. Held on the third Monday of each month, food is distributed to an average of 225-250 people. The week before Thanksgiving, that number jumped to 300 and the numbers are expected to grow even larger as the checks from the newly unemployed casino workers begin to run out. Photo by James A. McBride

Joe and Bunny Franco of Ventnor have been running the food bank ministry at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, Atlantic City, for 15 years. They are pictured with Msgr. William Hodge, pastor of St. Nicholas. Held on the third Monday of each month, food is distributed to an average of 225-250 people. The week before Thanksgiving, that number jumped to 300 and the numbers are expected to grow even larger as the checks from the newly unemployed casino workers begin to run out.
Photo by James A. McBride

We’ve all heard the stories about the early days of Christendom, where members of the church practiced their faith in catacombs. And while this general practice is ancient history, Joe and Bunny Franco of Ventnor are doing something similar — not just for their faith, but out of a true sense of stewardship.

For the past 15 years, Joe and Bunny have run the food bank ministry at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, a 112-year-old church that grew from humble beginnings, when Augustinian Father Michael Sullivan celebrated Mass in a tiny wooden structure on Absecon Island in 1855, into the giant brick and mortar building that occupies a significant section of Pacific Avenue.

The couple, married for 57 years, operates the food bank out of the church’s basement, a location they affectionately call “the catacombs.” A small door is located in the back of the church structure on Memorial Avenue. From there, volunteers and recipients stoop down into an expansive and mazelike room filled with pipes and vents, where heaters bang and freezers hum. But Joe and Bunny don’t mind the atmosphere; they’re there to serve.

“That is what Jesus wanted,” says Bunny. “We are supposed to give.”

According to the couple, they were first asked by Joe and Donna Gervase to lend a hand with the food bank, which was still in its infancy. “Then they moved to Florida and stuck us with the keys,” joked Joe.

The two may not have known what they were getting into, but for well over a decade, Joe and Bunny have embraced the call to stewardship and are committed to serving the poorest of the poor.

In 15 years since Joe and Bunny took those keys, the need for St. Nicholas’ food bank ministry has continued to expand in order to serve an ever-growing number of people in need. Held on the third Monday of each month, food is distributed to an average of 225-250 people. The week before Thanksgiving, that number jumped to 300 and the numbers are expected to grow even larger as the checks from the newly unemployed casino workers begin to run out. And during special times of the year, such as the distribution of Thanksgiving turkeys, the line can stretch three city blocks, with people waiting in the rain and the cold for the opportunity to forget about their daily struggles and celebrate a traditional holiday meal with their families and friends.

“There were people through the night shivering, freezing, cold waiting for us to open,” says Bunny, who can’t help but get emotional when talking about ministering to the working poor and the homeless. “Even after we close and we get a knock on the door, we’ll make them something. These are people begging for anything. This is why we’re here.”

“We have to think to ourselves, ‘Would I stand in a checkout line in the supermarket for 20 minutes, let alone hours?’ You would push the basket aside. So you know that these people need it,” explains Msgr. William A. Hodge, pastor of St. Nicholas of Tolentine. “It’s freezing and they’re standing outside in the ice and cold. So you know they’re in desperate need. And the line keeps getting bigger.”

At the front of that line stands Joe and Bunny, ready to serve. As the USDA provides the majority of the food for the monthly distribution, there’s a lot more paperwork to be done. On distribution days, the Francos arrive at 7 a.m. to set up shop, often working past “closing time” to make sure no one goes away hungry. And it’s not just food. People can receive clothing and bedding out the former convent located on the property. Bunny and Joe also pay out of their own pocket to provide toiletries for some of their homeless customers.

“If we have it, we give it. We just can’t say no,” says Bunny.

As part of embracing the spirit of giving at Christmas, St. Nicholas of Tolentine undertook yet another initiative to serve the poor of the Atlantic City community. Each year, over 400 bikes are given out in time for Christmas.

“People give us bicycles all year long,” explains Msgr. Hodge. “We have two skilled craftsmen who work all year long. That’s their devotion and their charity to St. Nicholas of Tolentine. They cannibalize and rehab and make beautiful what may be somebody else’s trash. We take everything. Bring us what you think is trash and we’ll make something beautiful out of it. And you’ll put a broad smile on a poor child’s face in this neighborhood at Christmas time. And for the kids that already have bicycles, we provide toys, games, books, puzzles, as well as fresh and brand new children’s clothing. Everybody goes away happy. The parents and grandparents benefit from the food bank and the children benefit from this big time.”

Joe and Bunny are thankful for the many volunteers and organizations that help to make the food bank ministry possible. The local St. Vincent de Paul Society and parishioners from St. Nicholas, Holy Trinity and St. James provide monetary and food donations on a regular basis; companies like Shop Rite and Pathmark offer discounts on food purchases and also donate food items for distribution; and members of the community who see the work being done along Pacific Avenue can’t help to be inspired, particularly with the always on the go Joe and Bunny, who also volunteer at their own parish as Eucharistic ministers in their “spare time.” Even rock artist Sammy Hagar, most famous as vocalist with Van Halen, got into the act, donating $10,000 to St. Nicholas’ food bank back in 2012.

“Often when people begin doing this, they’re hooked,” says Msgr. Hodge. “They just love doing it because they see an instant result. You’re putting food into people’s hands.”

“It is rewarding to know that you are helping people,” adds Bunny. “Neighbors see what we’re doing. We have people who make sandwiches, buy fresh fruit, or make up bags of food. There’s even a woman who saves bags for us to put the food in. It does spread out. What we’re doing is affecting other people.”

And while the impact Joe and Bunny’s stewardship makes is significant, there’s only so much that two people can do. They are always grateful for any extra help, particularly as they can’t always do the things they used to do 15 years ago.

“Nobody wants to take the keys like we did,” says Joe. “We just do the best we can.”

When it comes to service, it doesn’t have to be about “taking the keys,” said Deacon Russell Davis, director of the Diocese of Camden’s Office of Stewardship. “It can be offering what you have: your time, your energy, your effort. Just giving of oneself, not matter how big or how small, can make all the difference in the world. But an opportunity for stewardship needs to be embraced. The Diocese of Camden can only benefit if each parish had several ‘Bunny and Joes.’ Some of these people are waiting to be asked. Others are just looking to lend a hand but aren’t sure how. But the need for more Catholics to embrace the call to ministry is urgent.”

“If they don’t do it, who’s going to?” asked Msgr. Hodge.

To help financially support the St. Nicholas of Tolentine’s food bank, donations can be made through the Southern Branch of the Community Food Bank of South Jersey, located in Egg Harbor Township. Donations must be specifically earmarked for St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

For more information on stewardship contact Deacon Russell Davis, Office of Stewardship, at 856-583-6102.

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