ROCHESTER — When asked to give a tour of St. Joseph’s Northside ministry on Lyell Avenue, Sister of St. Joseph Peg Brennan suggests standing in the living room in the center and looking from one side of the tiny apartment to the other.
Some of the main components of the ministry are in plain view. There’s the coffeemaker; all are invited to drop by during the day to have a cup of joe and a conversation. There’s the shower; those who live on the street can stop by and get cleaned up. There’s the telephone; those in the neighborhood who are without a phone can make local calls. Finally, there’s a small food pantry with staples to help a family get through an emergency.
Like its modest home, the ministry focuses on helping individuals in crisis in small ways: a small loan here, bus fare there, clothes, emergency food, rent and prescription assistance, help connecting with social services, help getting a birth certificate and rides to job interviews or doctor’s appointments.
"I wanted this to be small," Sister Brennan said. "I don’t want it to be larger, because something would be lost. What I do is one on one."
Sister Brennan said the concept for St. Joseph’s Northside is to provide a place where people can go and be linked to existing services. By keeping it a small, individualized ministry, Sister Brennan said she is able to provide for a variety of needs and physically take people to appointments, something that would not be possible if she worked for a large agency.
She said the idea for St. Joseph’s Northside grew out of a needs assessment that the Sisters of St. Joseph conducted in 2006. The assessment identified the Lyell-Otis neighborhood as being underserved, Sister Brennan said.
"I called (former Holy Apostles pastor) Father (Paul) Tomasso as a courtesy to let him know what I was doing, and he said, "I’ve got a place you can have. It’s empty, and we would like a ministry in it," she recalled.
It took a few coats of paint and many generous donations of furniture and appliances to get the ministry up and running by December 2006. Yet the process of starting the ministry was familiar to Sister Brennan, a former Catholic-school English teacher who worked at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in the early 1980s and started St. Martin’s Place in 1984.
"Sister Peg is really nice to me," said Northside regular Mary Orlando, a Holy Apostles parishioner and School of the Holy Childhood graduate. "She’s good to me, and helps me whenever I need something."
The ministry offers a hot breakfast each Monday at 9 a.m., and regulars also cook lunch together on Fridays.
Sister Brennan said one of her main goals has been to reach out to and help the prostitutes working Lyell Avenue, which she said is sometimes called Rochester’s red light district. Building trust with the prostitutes and others in the area has been a slow process over the past three years, but has paid dividends, she said.
"This place is nonjudgmental," she said of St. Joseph’s Northside. "It’s not up to us to judge people. We want to see what we can do to heal their hearts."
The ministry also has helped several people kick drug habits through treatment referrals and small financial assistance, including bus fare for one woman to return home and leave "the life."
"I have heard from them since," Sister Brennan said of the several people who got clean. "They call and say they are doing OK."
A main component of the ministry is the spiritual support and encouragement it provides, Sister Brennan said. For example, the ministry has hosted a spa day for those in the neighborhood to experience pampering and stress relief.
Regulars also can sign up to take field trips to locations they might not otherwise get a chance to visit: the Susan B. Anthony House, Gardenscape, Harborfest, picnics, the Jell-O Museum in Le Roy and apple picking at local farms. A group from the ministry has gone several times to Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center in Himrod, and in gratitude for the hospitality they have received there, the group volunteered to do projects for their hosts, including preparing a mailing.
"(People) are so good, if you look beyond the surface and the rough edges," Sister Brennan observed.
She noted that in December, a group of the ministry’s regulars put together a holiday food basket for a poor rural family using items they bought with their own food stamps.
"Even people with very little themselves are willing to share," Sister Brennan said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: St. Joseph’s Northside is looking for volunteers with skills or specialized knowledge who can teach or share those skills. Volunteers also are needed to take people on trips, and donations of food, clothing and other goods are needed to help meet people’s needs. Call 585-458-3358 for details.
This story was updated on June 9, 2009.