Red Door doing more to help the poor

Since the Great Depression, Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable people have lined up outside the social hall of Saint Mary of Mercy Church for a simple lunch to help sustain them. Now, thanks to an expansion of the Red Door ministry, they are being welcomed inside for additional assistance and spiritual support.

The poor and homeless are receiving up to three meals a day, along with clothing and shoes. They can also sign up for subsidized housing through nonprofits that work out of the church basement.

Soon, guests will be able to take warm showers and even wash their clothes, according to Father Chris Donley, pastor of Divine Mercy, the parish that includes Saint Mary of Mercy.

“One man said to me, ‘I can tell you’re forming a community, and you respect me. That’s the only time of the day I feel that way,’” Father Donley said.

Dozens of students from University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne have been volunteering at the Red Door, said Will Ives, a Catholic campus missionary from FOCUS, who was joined by fellow missionary Marykate O’Brien.  

Pitt junior Megan Nagy, who spent a recent Thursday morning making sandwiches, called it an “awesome experience. I hope I can come again.”

Elise Smith, whose friends brought her to the Red Door, volunteers two or three times a week. “I come from a strong Catholic family,” she said. “This kind of work is really important to my faith.”

Volunteers had to stay away when the pandemic hit a year ago, so Father Donley jumped in, with help from the Sisters of Merciful Jesus. He partnered with Catholic Charities to set up a warming center, and then brought in housing experts. A grant from Our Campaign for The Church Alive! is helping to pay for upgrades to the dining hall, kitchen and restroom facilities.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are now served, and guests are welcome to attend daily Mass and adoration, to pray, or watch spiritual films on a large television. In the evening, they return to shelters for the night.

Father Donley credited Bishop David Zubik—who has worked next door to the ministry for decades—with inspiring and encouraging many of the improvements.

“More important than giving a sandwich is giving Christ,” Father Donley said. “We try to fulfill the scriptural call to love the least of these.”

Parents and children are invited to become a “Red Door Family,” collecting items, assembling lunch bags and dropping off non-perishable food and clothing. The Red Door has also received clothes from sports teams at Pitt, Duquesne and Central Catholic’s hockey team.

“People are very grateful,” Father Donley said. “I have a great love of the poor. Coming up on 10 years as a priest, I feel like this is just the beginning.”

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Father Chris Donley surveys the new warming center below St. Mary of Mercy Church in downtown Pittsburgh.