Serving Seaside Poor

Serving Seaside Poor

Friars and the Members of St. Junipero Serra Parish work together to help those in need in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, New Jersey

In Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, neighboring Boroughs on Barnegat Barrier Island off the coast of New Jersey, five Friars serve St. Junipero Serra Parish and the people of the Boroughs.

“The two Boroughs combine residential neighbors along with vacation and boardwalk areas,” said the pastor, Friar Michael Lorentsen. “When the tourist season ends and there’s not as much demand for the rooms, they are rented to provide transitional living space to social service clients. There are a number of people who are unable to find housing elsewhere.

“Also in the area, there are many senior citizens who never made a lot of money, and some now suffer with cognitive and physical problems. These challenges create a lot of need, and food insecurity is a big issue.

The Friars adhere to a charism of fraternity for mission. Our fraternal life together enables us to serve as brothers to everyone, especially those in need. Your food insecurity is our struggle too. Your housing problem is our problem too.

Friars José Guadalupe Matus-Castillo and Michael Lorentsen prepare bags for distribution in the St. Francis Food Pantry.
Parishioners and Friar José unload supplies at the Pantry.

“The St. Francis Food Pantry makes groceries, meat, produce, vegetables, and other items available to families in need every Wednesday from 10 until Noon,” Friar Michael said. “People line up and say what they need, and we try to give them as much as we can. Pre-pandemic, there were about 35 families each week; by the end of April 2020, there were about 75.

“It wasn’t just because people had been sick – there were also people affected by the economic downturn and the closing of businesses. Many would say: ‘I’ve never had to ask for help before…What do I need to show? Do you need to see a tax form?’ We would tell them that all we needed was their name and what they needed.”

Simon’s Kitchen provides much more than meals.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday, from October through May, the off-season, people can get a hot meal,” Friar Michael said. “But it is also a big social night for senior citizens, many of whom are cognitively impaired or have other forms of dementia.

“Pre-pandemic, we were serving 70 meals a night. During the pandemic we had to close, but not for too long. We opened last Fall with meals to go. Rather than the 70 or so, it grew to around 120 meals. Now in addition to the seniors, there are many families with small children.”

Another shift has occurred because of the need for affordable housing.

“There is increasing demand because rents have gone up,” Friar Michael said. “Even if people qualify for Section 8 vouchers, they have to go through a realtor. And if people have an eviction in their history, landlords won’t deal with them. They can’t say it, but they don’t. We’re working with families who are among the working poor, but are having difficulties finding places that are not substandard.”

Every August, the parish provides school supplies for children whose parents might have trouble supplying them. And like many parishes, St. Juniper Serra has an Angel Tree program for presents each Christmas. But they also do something more.

“On Christmas Eve, the children are encouraged to make bags of gifts, and they bring them to church as birthday, Christmas gifts to the baby Jesus,” Friar Michael said. “It can be anything they think a poor child would need – toothpaste, brushes – it’s funny what comes in. All the children come up during the offertory procession and place the bags around the Creche. Then all the things are sent to the Pantry to be distributed.”

(Excerpt from article originally published in the Closer to Home Insert of the Messenger of Saint Anthony, an international publication of the Conventual Franciscan friars of the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy.)