Luna Newman was pleased with his fellow cooks’ vote to leave the jalapenos out of what he called the “cheesiest cornbread in the universe,” created by tripling the amount of cheese.
Meanwhile, Marty Zehr chopped onions. Soon he was joined by other Labre Center residents around the kitchen island as they made chili with two kinds of cornbread along with air-fried okra. Dessert was Oreo cream pie.
The cooking club at Labre House brings the residents together to socialize and enhances skills they’ll need in living independently.
In 1996, Peter and Paul Community Services opened the Benedict Joseph Labre Center, named after the patron saint of people who are homeless and those with mental illnesses, to serve men and women living with a mental illness, many of whom have addictive disorders. The Labre Center serves 15 adult residents who generally stay up to two years.
Peter and Paul Community Services grew out of an ecumenical effort involving Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and St. Vincent de Paul Parish, and its programs today continue to be supported by Catholics and dozens of parishes. Alan Herzog, a board member and Sts. Peter and Paul parishioner, said that Labre Center and other programs of Peter and Paul Community Services provide help in a Christ-like manner of respect and dignity .
Bessie Cox, life skills coordinator at Labre Center, encourages residents to take initiative by finding recipes to cook. The residents were impressed when Cox told them she takes the recipes home and makes the meals for her family. “A light bulb went off,” she said, “and they realized they’re making a difference not only in their lives, but the lives of others.”
She allows them to play music and dance — as long it’s done safely around the food and kitchen equipment. “Yes, definitely have fun,” she said.
The residents are at different levels when they begin, but Cox meets them at their level, keeping them engaged and moving ahead.
Some recipes are simple such as a chicken Caesar wrap in a tortilla. A more complex recipe was shrimp Victoria with a base cream sauce with shrimp and rice. “They pulled together,” Cox said. “That’s one thing I encourage. Work with your friends and help each other. It’s a beautiful process, and then they get to enjoy it together.”
When the residents get outside their comfort level, when it seems intimidating, they learn that they can do things that seem hard with clear instructions.
The meals have impressed her, such as a “restaurant quality” chicken and broccoli fettuccine with alfredo sauce from scratch. “They’ve thrived and shown themselves to be real culinary,” Cox said. “It’s been a huge blessing. There’s something about people and food and creating a sense of faith, comfort and happiness. In those relationships, they’re really learning to come together.”
In making a meal, Cox said, “there’s a lot of love, compassion and understanding even when no words are spoken. When they put their time into it, they see it’s worthwhile. I’ve seen them grow a lot.”
Nutrition, portion control, safety, food handling, budgeting and more are part of the learning, she added. The residents can keep the recipes of the meals they made in a booklet for use when they leave.
Cox also stresses a proper diet, exercise and sleep to maintain good mental and physical health.
Jazmyn Burgett, program director at Labre Center, said the cooking club is part of efforts to teach life skills so they can live independently. Some residents get help with resumes so they can go to work, others go to school and all receive help with issues that have affected them in the past. “It feels good to know we are helping them so they know that a mental illness does not define them. They can still go out and do things in spite of the mental disability,” Burgett said.
>> Inspiring mission
Alan Herzog is inspired by Peter and Paul Community Services programs such as the Labre Center which provide faith and hope to people who have been through tough times.
Herzog lived in the Benton Park area more than 10 years ago and became a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Soulard. He met people who are homeless in the area, getting to know some of them.
The basement of the church is used to house people who are unhoused, operated by Peter and Paul Community Services, which receives funds from the Annual Catholic Appeal for the shelter. A community meals program for people who are homeless operates in the former parish hall and is supported by volunteers from many Catholic parishes and groups among other organizations. Herzog became a volunteer with Peter and Paul Community Services and then joined it board, a role he continues in today.
Herzog continues to be impressed with the mission of the ecumenical organization which was started by Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and other churches in Soulard. “It’s not just a matter of providing a meal or housing people overnight, which obviously is very important. But they really do it in a Christ-like manner of respect and dignity, which really resonates with me and is really important,” Herzog said.
The mission offering those it serves hope, empowerment, compassion, hospitality and a chance for independence is reflected at the Labre Center, located in the former convent of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in St. Louis. Appropriate housing and support is the key, Herzog said, in a manner designed to help the residents become independent in society.
“With the support of parishes like Sts. Peter and Paul, other parishes and other denominations, those partnerships really struck me as consistent with the mission of Christ. That’s why I saw this as an organization I wanted to be involved in and try to help however I can,” Herzog said.
For more information, visit ppcsinc.org.
>> The saint
St. Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron saint of beggars and people who are homeless.
Born March 26, 1748, near Boulogne in France, the eldest of 15 children, he grew up in a middle-class family with many priest-relatives. He at first sought to enter a religious community. He later discerned that his true vocation was to seek to be a cloister within the world. He abandoned his materialistic upbringing and went on a pilgrimage throughout Europe taking in many shrines and churches. Dressed in rags, he relished prayerful isolation.
Settling in Rome, passers-by offered him food; otherwise he lived off scraps he could find by the side of the road. Sleeping on the streets, he was frequently harassed because of his appearance and accepted it in a spirit of penance. Others, however, recognized his saintly qualities. He was known in Rome as “the poor man of the Forty Hours devotion.”
He spent nights sleeping in the ruins of the Colosseum where many early Christians were martyred. He spent days praying in churches. His health began to fail, and he died on April 16, 1783, at age 35. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1881. His feast day is April 16.
Source: Oblate Sisters of St. Benedict Joseph Labre and Franciscan Media
The Labre Prayer
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, you gave up honor, money, and home for love of Jesus. Help us to set our hearts on Jesus and not on the things of this world. You lived in obscurity among the poor in the streets. Enable us to see Jesus in our poor brothers and sisters and not judge by appearances. Make us realize that in helping them we are helping Jesus. Show us how to befriend them and not pass them by.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, you had a great love for prayer. Obtain for us the grace of persevering prayer, especially adoration of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, poor in the eyes of men but rich in the eyes of God, pray for us. Amen
Source: The Labre Project at John Carroll University