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Memories of a Quarter-Century
The forerunner of Ozanam Inn was St. Vincent's Hotel and Free Labor Bureau, a hospice and job-finding agency ministering to thousands of unsheltered and unemployed who lived in or passed through New Orleans in the 1910s and 1920s.
The hotel and bureau were conceived in the fertile mind of Father Peter M.H. Wynhoven who, as chancellor of the archdiocese, found himself with some spare time after his morning office work. In 1911, two short years after ordination, the dynamic Dutchman decided to rent space in the Lower Pontalba Building, Decatur Street side, and throw open its doors for homeless and jobless men.
By the time he became pastor of St. Joseph's Gretna, in 1917, Father Wynhoven and his collaborators calculated that St. Vincent's has sheltered 115, 839 transients; distributed 92,442 free meals; and found jobs for nearly 10,000.
Shortly after the 1918 arrival of the Archbishop John W. Shaw in New Orleans, Msgr. W. W. Hume replaced Father Wynhoven at the chancery. In the interval, St. Vincent's had moved to larger quarters at 615 Decatur Street. Eventually, the hotel occupied 411 North Rampart Street, next to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where it remained in operation a few more years.
With the premature death of Msgr. Hume and Father Wynhoven's own determination to change his social welfare concerns from indigent adults to orphaned or abandoned boys, St. Vincent's experienced a steady decline in services. It eventually closed. Father Wynhoven, while never regretting his efforts in favor of St. Vincent's, had reasoned from effect to cause. He decided to concentrate his energies on what creates homeless or shiftless men - inadequate training in employable skills and lack of motivation by children and youth. Hope Haven in Marrero, which he founded as a trade and boarding school a short distance from his Gretna rectory, became his chief extra-parochial interest until his death in 1944.
Other institutions partially filled the social welfare gap opened wide by St. Vincent's abrupt closing. The Baptist Rescue Mission started in the late 1920s on the edge of the Vieux Carre; the Salvation Army promoted its Men's Lodge; and the Volunteers of America operated a residence for men.
Serviceable as are these still-functioning institutions to the community, the need for a shelter such as St. Vincent's in its heyday was still sorely felt in the 1950's, especially by priests assigned to the fringe of the Central Business District where tenements had replaced 19th century mansions along St. Charles, Camp, Magazine, and Tchoupitoulas and the perpendicular streets of Poydras, Lafayette, Girod, Julia, St. Joseph, Howard, and others closer to the Lower Garden District.
With its 185-foot tower, St. Patrick's Church on Camp Street became a magnet for men jumping off freight trains and crossing railroad tracks near the Mississippi River or walking aimlessly with empty pockets from the parish prison and house of detention, forced to sleep on benches in Lafayette Square, in alleyways, or on stoops of abandoned house or shops. Each noon scores would gather in the 1940s (when Father Carl J. Schutten was pastor) for meal tickets. The number kept increasing in the early 1950s, as did the homeless who lacked the "four bits" needed for a bed in some cheap rooming house in the neighborhood. A last resort seemed to be ringing the rectory bell and asking for help - food, clothes, shoes, shelter...at any hour of the day or night.
In the spring of 1952, some 300 Vincentians from the metropolitan area were gathered for a breakfast meeting in the Old Druid's Home at 843 Camp St. The normal business routine came to an abrupt end when the pastor of one year at St. Patrick's issued a challenge to all present: "Why not join forces and pool resources to perform corporately the works of mercy for hungry, homeless, hapless and helpless.
The question touched the sensitivities of Vincentians such as James J. Impastato, Ernest J. Robin, James J. Ganucheau, Joseph L. Caballero, Henry A. Gandolfo, Sheldon J. Hanemann, Harold M. Rouchell, State Senator Charles E. Deichman, Oliver S. Delery and others - not to mention Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel who was, as usual, in attendance at the meeting. All promised to explore the matter but no real action was taken for almost two years.
In 1954, while making parish rounds, the pastor of St. Patrick's called on Miss Annie Staggers at the rooming house she operated on Camp Street. She identified herself as the new owner of a three-story building next door at 829. She had just acquired it after Loyola University, which had planned to open its burgeoning television studios in the spacious structure, decided instead to set up quarters at 1024 N. Rampart St. Miss Staggers took the priest on a tour through her building, erected in 1903 by a group of officers of the U.S. Naval Reserves. In the 1920s, the Marine Reserves had occupied it and, during World War II it sheltered men of the U.S. Shore Patrol. In the late 1940s, it housed a music school.
As the pastor progressed on his tour from one floor to the other, he had visions of how each section could be used for a house of hospitality: ground floor for offices, kitchen, dining room, waiting area; middle floor for the administrators' living quarters, common wash rooms, showers, and a dormitory; the top floor for a large dormitory with existing shower facilities. The building was solid but needed refurbishing, some rewiring, and more modern plumbing. As he shared his thoughts with Miss Staggers, she indicated that she would be willing to negotiate with the Vincentians and allow them to improve the premises...at their expense.
Within a few days, the Central Council officers made an inspection tour with Miss Staggers who reiterated her willingness to be cooperative. THe next person to approach was Archbishop Rummel whose approval had to be sought for site and project. He listened attentively but asked for time before reaching a decision since he was on the verge of leaving for Rome to make his quinquennial visit to the Holy Father. He promised to confer with the Vincentians shortly after his return from the Holy City.
When a second conference took place, the Archbishop prudently set three stipulations before he could give his firm approbation: (1) the negotiations with Miss Staggers must call for a long-term lease with reasonable monthly rent; (2) the various Conferences would have to supplement the support promised by the archdiocese through regular contributions; (3) a community of Religious, especially Brothers, must be obtained to staff the institution, give it a spiritual tone, and receive decent compensation from the Society.
By late 1954, two conditions had been met. The rent stipulated by Miss Staggers was a modest $250 per month. She was willing to lease the place for a number of years, allowing the Vincentians to make improvements and rearrange it to meet the needs as then envisioned. The Vincentians Conferences, during a subsequent quarterly meeting, pledged regular support.
Father Schutten, by then pastor of St. James Major Church in Gentilly, was contacted. He recalled the visit he had received three years before from Brother Mathias Barrett, founder of the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd. With Brother's address in hand, Mr. Impastato made prompt contact and received an equally quick, favorable answer. Brother Mathias indicated he would visit New Orleans for an on-the-spot inspection of 829 Camp Street.
The Vincentians were jubilant; all three condition had been almost miraculously met. Brother Mathias arrive on Mardi Gras night and, following written instructions from Mr. Impastato, had gone to the St. Charles Hotel for a night's stay. A clerk brusquely told him that Mardi Gras evening: "There is no reservation in your name." Not unlike other homeless men, Brother made his way to nearby St. Patrick's. The astounded pastor assured Brother that he would get him into the St. Charles; he knew a secret to which Brother was not privy. Together they drove to the St. Charles and, in the hotel lobby, found a group of leading Vincentians who had patiently expected the arrival of Brother Mathias. The men were at the local hotel not only to greet him officially, but also to escort him personally to his living quarters while in New Orleans - the Mayor's suite in the St. Charles Hotel!
Unused to such luxury, Brother Mathias left his suite of rooms early the next morning and headed straight for Miss Staggers' rooming house where he remained...for the the duration. Soon he was joined by Brother Kevin who undertook the chore of all the cleaning and rearranging, the purchase of linens, mattresses, beds, tables, office furniture, and other needs, through most of Lent, 1955. Practically all of the expenses were covered by a gift from Archbishop Rummel, although other benefactors quickly came to the aid of the institution with utilitarian furnishings such as linens, sheets, kitchen equipment - even pots, pans, dishes, spoons, forks, and knives.
At the suggestion of SHeldon Hanemann, life-long Vincentian, it was decided to name the hospice Ozanam Inn, after Frederick Ozanam, founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833 and godfather of the first lay president of the initial New Orleans Conference in New Orleans at St. Patrick', William Blair Lancaster. Ozanam and Lancaster had known each other when the latter, still a Protestant, was a student in Paris in the 1840s. Besides being his baptismal sponsor, Ozanam presented Lancaster with the rule book of the Society - first copy to reach New Orleans. Exactly one hundred years had elapsed between the organization of St. Patrick's COnference and the 1952 challenge issued by the tenth pastor in the Druid's Home a block away from the church.
Brother Kevin proved the epitome of efficiency. Within thirty days all was in readiness for the dedication of Ozanam Inn. April 2, 1955. The date coincided with the 17th anniversary of the ordination of the pastor of St. Patrick's. In his remarks during the dedicatory ceremonies, he stated that it was the happiest day of his priestly life.
On Palm Sunday, the first guests arrived. There was no lack of clients since the word spread rapidly along "skid row" that free lodgings were available for men in need. As it turned out, one of the guests that first night (Palm Sunday) was a psychiatrist. Family troubles, aggravated by his own yen for alcohol, had driven him out of his home and forced him to tramp the streets of New Orleans until he could find shelter.
For twenty-five years Ozanam Inn has been a haven for the flotsam and jetsam of humanity from professional men with weaknesses (like the psychiatrist) to priests granted leaves of absence by their bishops; from shiftless men unable to shake off their wanderlust to serious students who stand in line waiting for a meal or a bed while reading paperback editions of the works of Gorki or Hemingway; from prison parolees to hurricane refugees; from men on crutches to youth experiencing withdrawal from drugs or alcohol; from pensioners with funds exhausted by inflation to migrant workers; from native Orleanians to "knights of the road"; from illiterates to amnesia victims; from released convicts to ship-jumpers sought by immigration authorities; from victims of alcoholism to men who would land on any given night - except for the Inn - in jail for being charged with "vagrancy."
Statistics can be as cold and impersonable as a social security number. Nevertheless, they can serve to justify good works such as the Vincentians and their surrogates, the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, have been lavishing at Ozanam Inn for the past twenty-five years. Indeed, the figures by far outstrip those of Father Wynhoven's St. Vincent's Hotel and Free Labor Bureau.
From April of 1955 to the same month in 1980, Ozanam Inn has given night shelter to 391,248; has served hot meals to 2,439,344; distributed clothes among 109,941; assisted 3,427 families; and, cumulatively, practiced 2,943,960 works of mercy.
And it has done all this and more in two locales: Annie Staggers' brick building which did not become a television station; and, shortly after the 1961 arrival of Archbishop John P. Cody, at the very place where, in 1952, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was hurled a challenge which it met far beyond its expectations, namely, at the Old Druids' Home at 843 Camp Street.
Long may the ministration of Ozanam Inn continue for the friendless, the unsheltered, the hungry, the naked, and the sick, for, as St. John Chrysostom observed sixteen centuries ago: "The poor are the physicians of our souls, our benefactors, our protectors. You give them less than you receive from them; you give them alms and you receive the Kingdom of Heaven; you save them from poverty and you are reconciled to the Lord. See how unequal is the exchanges. The goods that you give you give pass away, the others remain; the former perishes, the latter is indestructible."
Msgr. Henry C. Bezou