Café in front of St. Jude Parish transformed into food distribution site because of COVID-19; sisters hope to expand ministry soon
DETROIT — In a summer of social distancing, neighbors on Detroit’s east side have found comfort in connecting with others at the Deo Gratias Café.
Every Tuesday and Friday, volunteers stand ready to greet guests at the makeshift café in front of St. Jude Church on the corner of Redmond Street and East Seven Mile with refreshments from noon to 2 p.m.
Neighbors are invited to grab a bite to eat and and sit at a table in the shade. In addition to packaged snacks, volunteers often distribute fresh produce donated by local gardeners for those in need.
The café is a project of Deo Gratias Ministries Detroit, a nonprofit founded by Felician Sisters Felicity Marie Madigan and Shelley Marie Jeffrey in 2018 to provide unconditional hospitality to those in need. The name means “thanks be to God” in Latin.
Last year, with the support of the Archdiocese of Detroit, the nonprofit entered into an agreement with St. Jude to established the ministry on the parish grounds.
The café was open for about two months before Michigan’s stay-at-home orders forced its doors shut in March. The sisters weren’t idle for long, though. The food pantry at St. Jude closed temporarily at the same time, so they knew there would be a need to fill. The sisters modified their service to distribute groceries curbside twice a week to anyone in need.
“We hoped eventually to get back to our café, but more important to us was just to try to help the people who suddenly found themselves in this strange new world,” Sr. Madigan told Detroit Catholic.
The sisters ran the curbside grocery service for seven weeks, until St. Jude’s food pantry reopened in May.
Now, instead of handing out groceries, the sisters and other volunteers offer “café snack boxes” with packaged snacks such as chips or granola bars. Word is spreading in the neighborhood, with Deo Gratias Café often distributing more than 100 snack boxes per day. The sisters also share donations of face masks, produce and other food they receive.
“It’s been fruitful,” Sr. Felicity said. “We’ve been very busy and certainly blessed to be ministering to these people. The more we get to interact with them, the more we find out what kind of things that they need.”
Sr. Felicity notes many of the café’s guests are beginning to open up and share their struggles with the volunteers and with one another; some have even asked for prayers and spiritual guidance.
Hosting the café outdoors in front of the church has also raised awareness of the nonprofit and its services.
“Our profile in the community has certainly greatly increased with the distribution of groceries, and then carrying over into the café,” Sr. Jeffrey said. “People just driving past stop, get out of their cars and come and see us.”
The pandemic has brought new challenges to frontline ministry, and the loss of 13 Felician Sisters from their community to COVID-19 this past spring was a stark reminder of the risk that exists. Yet Sr. Madigan and Sr. Jeffrey say they are trusting in God and doing all they can to operate safely.
“Our sisters who were suffering really helped to inspire us,” Sr. Jeffrey added. “It brought us back to remember, throughout our history, the times when our sisters have faced similar challenges and have not let that prevent them from responding. Even at risk of their own safety.”
The sisters remain optimistic about expanding the ministry, even within the limitations of COVID-19 and social distancing. The two hope to complete some renovations inside the parish center in time to take the café back indoors as the weather grows cooler.
Sr. Jeffrey has a passion for the urban farming movement, and the sisters are working to acquire a vacant plot of land adjacent to the church for use as a community garden. This would complement three raised garden beds they established on church property last summer to grow fresh produce for those in need.
Deo Gratias Ministries is also raising money to purchase a food truck, which would allow the sisters to mobilize and bring their services to some of the more isolated parts of the city.
While development of the ministry “hasn’t gone in the straight line that we envisioned,” Sr. Jeffrey says the heart of the mission remains the same.
“The goal of providing hospitality, of building relationships, helping people work together to improve their lives, that hasn’t changed,” she said. “The form it’s taking has certainly undergone a lot of different changes, and will continue to do so. But the basic mission is pretty enduring.”
Deo Gratias Ministries Detroit has received grants from the Catholic Foundation of Michigan and Trinity Health, in addition to financial support and material donations from individuals. A list of current needs can be found on their website, dgmdetroit.org.