Despite church closure, St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen still strives to serve

A man eats his lunch at St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen, in the basement of the former St. Leo Church near Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. A staple in the community for decades, the soup kitchen recently applied for nonprofit status to continue to serve the community after St. Leo Church closed earlier this year.
Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Detroit — Soup is still on the menu at St. Leo’s. Along with plenty of other soul-warming meals.

When the decision was made May 19 to close the worship site at St. Leo Church, one of two church buildings of St. Charles Lwanga Parish, the future of the popular St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen was in doubt.

The kitchen traces its roots to the days when St. Leo High School closed in 1971 and the school’s alumni association supported the soup kitchen ministry as a way to continue the parish’s outreach to the surrounding community.

The kitchen offers a sense of stability to the community, with warm meals, a chance to pick up used clothing for free and receive dental and medical care free of charge for residents in the surrounding ZIP codes.

So when St. Charles Lwanga Parish sold the St. Leo site to Halabu Partners’ 3H Properties this summer, with Halabu Partners planning to turn the former Catholic church into a nondenominational Gospel choir venue, volunteers at St. Leo’s worked to keep the kitchen running as an independent ministry.

“The soup kitchen is still happening and will continue to operate,” Tom Larabell, executive director of St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen, told The Michigan Catholic. “We formed a board and plan to continue. Archbishop Vigneron most graciously offered to pay the rent for our first year.”

St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen, now organized as an independent organization void of any connection to a parish, is working to establish itself as a 501(c)3. The board worked out a five-year lease with Halabu Partners to operate out of the church basement, with the Archdiocese of Detroit paying the $5,000 monthly rent for the first year of the lease.

“We’re now our own entity,” Larabell said. “We’ve filed for 501(c)3 status, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t get that. For now we’ve been operating through the Malta Medical and Dental Clinic, and if anyone is giving us a contribution, the money is going to the clinic to cover the bills until we get 501(c)3 status.”

The soup kitchen continues to operate Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The dental and medical clinics are open 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with the medical clinic open the first and third Wednesdays of the month, and the dental clinic open the first and third Fridays of the month.

Larabell said people with longtime connections to St. Leo Parish and the soup kitchen didn’t want to see it close with the consolidation of St. Charles Lwanga Parish.

St. Charles Lwanga formed in July 2013 with the merging of St. Leo and St. Cecilia parishes, but after the consolidation of the parish this year, it fell to volunteers to figure out a plan for the kitchen’s future.

“I got involved in continuing the soup kitchen’s operation because I didn’t want to see the soup kitchen disappear,” Larabell said. “We formed a nine-member board made up of volunteers and alums of St. Leo High School who are very active at the soup kitchen.”

Setting out as an independent ministry offers some freedom and challenges for St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen. On one hand, the kitchen now has complete autonomy in raising funds. On the other hand, some things the kitchen could have taken for granted, like Internet access and insurance, are now expenses on the books.

“The board of directors is committed to keeping the soup kitchen open,” said Anitta Y. Orr, a St. Leo High School alum and president of the soup kitchen board. “We were fortunate enough to have the archdiocese underwrite the first year of rent. Now we start raising money to continue to honor the lease.”

Orr said the soup kitchen can’t start a formal fundraising process until it receives nonprofit status, which it hopes to have by December.

“The next step would be fundraising and getting more volunteers, even if it’s not a regular basis,” Orr said. “We’re planning on kicking off a major fundraising appeal right before Christmas.”

While the soup kitchen works on its transition from a parish ministry to an independent entity, soup kitchen director Christian Williams is focused on making sure the kitchen is living out its mission.

“Everything we have been doing we are going to keep doing,” Williams said. “What we are really trying to do is expand the program and the services we’re providing.”

Parishes and groups interested in volunteering are encouraged to call Larabell or Williams at the soup kitchen. But more than anything, Williams said, what the kitchen needs is a steady stream of revenue to keep the lights on, the doors open and meals cooking.

“Being on our own gives us autonomy, it gives us freedom to pursue donations in a different way, so that’s exciting,” Williams said. “But no matter how we do it, the dedication to serve is still here.”

How to help

To volunteer at the St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen, 4860 15th St., Detroit, or for more information, call (313) 815-6948.