Messenger photos by Andrew Sharp
Brother Camillus, right, of Saint Columba Monastery, serves scrambled eggs to Russell Nix of Hilltop.
Bishop Robert Thomas, left, and Monsignor Melvin Westover, right, make breakfast in the church basement.
It’s a warm, dry Saturday morning in August, and the priests at Our Lady of the Hilltop Catholic Church on South Eureka Avenue are cooking breakfast. When they do breakfast, they do it with style—eggs, sausage, fried potatoes, and gravy. And most Saturdays, they welcome about 200-300 people to eat.
The doors leading to the basement of the old church are open for ventilation, and the fans hum as they keep the air moving. More than a hundred people have been through the line already, and they are still moving through, getting a greeting from the volunteers and a plateful of hot food. They help themselves to hot chocolate, coffee, or tea, then sit in the basement and chat or head outside to eat in the yard.
Every Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m., the church holds the breakfast for the needy in the Hilltop community. There are three priests, and they are helped by four members of nearby Saint Columba Monastery and several volunteers. The church also gives away clothes, and is planning to start several other programs in conjunction with the monastery.
Drew Hastings, who lives in the Hilltop community, said he comes often. For him, it’s a social event as well as a free breakfast. “We meet people that we haven’t seen for awhile, we’re like a family. It’s enjoyable to come down here.”
Another man, Anthony Wilson, said he was from the outskirts of the Hilltop neighborhood and it was his second time at the breakfast. He said although there is a lot of violence in the area, when people come together for the breakfast they are at peace. "There’s no arguing, there’s no fighting, there’s no trouble. It’s peaceful here. They come here from all over the Hill, and I haven’t seen any problems yet."
The meal was started three years ago by three priests: Monsignor Melvin Westover, Monsignor Richard Mueller, and Father Douglas Berger.
Westover said the three of them, who have other jobs, bought the church with their own money. When they came to the neighborhood, he said, they saw the need of some of the people who were struggling to get enough meals, especially the elderly. So they started serving breakfast on Saturdays, paying for it out of their own pockets, and also began to give away clothes.
When the brothers of Saint Columba Monastery, nearby on Broad Street, found out about the work the priests were doing, they began to help out.
Bishop Robert Thomas, who is the abbot of the monastery, said they help serve and clean up, contribute financially, and bring some food and toiletries to give away.
“Our Lord told us we had to do these things…feed the poor, visit the sick, all those kinds of things. And we’re just trying to be faithful to what he’s told us to do,” Thomas said.
“We’re finding this more and more, people just have it hard,” he said. “I’ve been there in my life. I was a heartbeat away from being on the streets at one point in my life, so I can relate to that. But the people are just having a hard time getting by,” he added.
Thomas said they want to get more involved financially in the future, and they are also planning to expand the services offered to the community. In partnership with the church, they plan to start a free clinic which will meet in the church basement twice a month. Two doctors have agreed to help out and oversee the program.
Westover said they also want to start some educational programs.
“There are a lot of kids we’ve found since we’ve been here that can’t read, or they have trouble reading, so we thought this program would be a way to help the kids,” he said.
By next January, they hope to start a program to help kids who have dropped out of school get their GED’s.
They also want to start offering a hot meal once a week when the weather gets colder, in addition to the breakfast.
Hastings, who has lived in Hilltop for years and raised his children there, said he has been homeless for six years.
“They’ve got open arms, and they help the neighborhood. It’s necessary for a lot of the homeless people…without places like this, we wouldn’t make it,” he said.
Father Ben Aycock, one of the four members of the monastery, said the priests at the church need help.
“We’re hoping that people will get involved, because these three priests can’t carry the load for the amount of people that they’re seeing,” he said.
Westover said there are several ways people can help. “If you can’t give some time, and some of your talent, then you could certainly make donations, or if you don’t have the money you can always come and help,” he said.
He said the church could use clothing or nonperishable food, and if people want to volunteer they can call the rectory at 538-8439.