Last Word: Mary Ann Ponti

As the director of the outreach programs at St. Anthony Shrine—the Franciscan faith community on Arch Street in downtown Boston—Mary Ann Ponti has connections “five-miles wide.” That’s how Maryanne Rooney-Hegan, the shrine’s development director, put it when the three of us sat down together for an interview in a room on the shrine’s refectory level.

As well as being a one-time member of the Spare Change News board of directors and an erstwhile acquaintance of the newspaper’s co-founder James Shearer, Mary Ann has devoted time and energy to serving the homeless through her work at the shrine. This includes directing two food-related programs: Bread on the Common, which sees volunteers distributing sandwiches, socks and the gift of presence to homeless people throughout Downtown Crossing; and the Franciscan Food Center, a supermarket of sorts for people in need of groceries.

When I asked her what made her want to work in the field of poverty alleviation, she said: “I also work at Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House, and I became interested in homeless outreach in general when I went on disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina as one of the first Red Cross volunteers. [There were] people truly in need. I was inspired to volunteer at the Food Center in 2008.”

Her experience in New Orleans and as a volunteer at the shrine eventually led Mary Ann to accept a position as the Food Center’s director. She then began coordinating Bread on the Common, a development that Rooney-Hegan described as a “natural progression.”

Since adopting these roles, she’s made a few innovations to both programs. The Food Center now boasts the addition of a “giving closet” replete with donated shoes, handbags and blankets for people in need. Bread on the Common has also witnessed a few interesting changes. While the volunteers who take part have always offered food, prayers or a listening ear to downtown’s homeless, the program has widened its scope to include a shoe service and a foot-care program.

“When we encounter someone with inappropriate or no footwear, we sort it out,” said Mary Ann. “This is all about dignity. We ask them if we can take them to buy new shoes at one of the places in downtown Boston. We let them pick something out within a budget. We help them carry their bags… We help them clean their feet. Foot care can be a real problem if you’re living on the street. That could be Band-Aids, wipes, new socks. The smiles have been really something else.”

This offering of help to marginalized people aligns well with the shrine’s work as a whole, which takes its inspiration from St. Francis’ interactions with the poor and the sick. As Rooney-Hegan pointed out, rather than approaching charity from a doctrinal standpoint, the work of the Franciscans—and Mary Ann, too—is always based in a response to people’s real needs: “Our way is to meet the changing needs. If there’s no longer a need, the program ends. Mary Ann came up with the foot-care service because she saw that need.”

Of course, going beyond giving someone your spare change and actually opening yourself up to hearing about that person’s life isn’t always easy, but Mary Ann has a special gift for it. “You have to give of yourself to listen,” she admitted. “That’s the big part of this ministry. We go out twice a month, and although we do provide a sandwich or a drink, it’s much more than that. Our presence is about listening to them when we say, ‘how are you?’ We sit back and listen… They may have had handouts before. That’s easy to do. But to stop and listen and to get to know someone, that’s another thing. If you give them a few minutes, many of them will tell you what’s going on. It’s comforting to have someone listen to them.”

One of Mary Ann’s success stories at the shrine came to a happy conclusion recently when a couple she met on the street finally got housing. The couple came to her, and Mary Ann was able to direct them to resources.

“There’s one story I’d like to point out,” Mary Ann said. “A couple who’d been living in Downtown Crossing who we knew from Bread on the Common—the day they got housing, they came to the shrine. The woman checked in at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless women’s clinic [which recently opened a satellite at the shrine]. I signed them up for groceries at the Food Center and gave them housewares from our new giving closet. A relationship that started on the street is going to continue in the shrine, and that could grow into receiving services from other ministries.”

Such outcomes are all in a day’s work for Mary Ann and the Franciscans on Arch Street, a faith community where you’ll regularly see homeless people at mass. As Rooney-Hegan pointed out, you’ll see the “billionaire [sitting] next to the homeless person. You truly see the face of Christ.”

Andrew Warburton is a writer and copy editor at Spare Change News.

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