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‘I did the maximum good I could do on earth’

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Brother Ronald Giannone reflects on his legacy helping the less fortunate

By Ken Mammarella

In 1976, Brother Ronald Giannone, OFM Cap., was sent by his Capuchin Franciscan Order to Delaware. After ascertaining community needs, he obtained funds for the Delmarva Peninsula’s first emergency shelter for homeless women. Mary Mother of Hope House opened Oct. 7, 1977.
His mission since: Assure that “the poor should never be treated poorly.”
The Ministry of Caring budget now tops $10 million, with 19 programs, including childcare, dining rooms, shelters, and housing options. Brother Ronald also oversees several housing operations in Wilmington, with a $7 million budget, and one near his childhood home in the Bronx.
This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

What is your Italian heritage?
I was born and raised in the Bronx by first-generation Italian Americans. My mother came from Sicily in the womb of my grandmother. My father’s parents were from near Naples.

Your father died when you were young. Your mother worked two jobs but still helped others.
Helping was instilled in me. She had such a gracious heart. If anybody was sick in the neighborhood, they called Connie. She did it like it was nothing. Even while she was living in New York, she would come down and cook for the bishop, the mayor, any dignitaries.
She moved to Wilmington in 1982, and the conditions in her senior housing inspired me. If you depend on what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development gives you, you get what my mother had. Flush the toilet twice, use an icepick in the freezer. That’s crazy with arthritis. I raise additional money, so we have a keyless entrance and a doorman 24 hours a day, like Park Avenue. I wish that she would have had all these things.

How often do you go back to your old neighborhood?
Often, because my best friend was the pastor, and after he passed away, the parish asked me to run its senior housing project.

How did being Italian matter when you were young?
I lived with a strong group of Italian Americans, in a neighborhood with all kinds of people. We always went to church faithfully and had a Sunday dinner, lasting 3½ hours.

What does being Italian mean today? The seed of Christianity was brought by Peter and Paul to Rome and has been passed on for 2,000 years. To me, being Italian and being Catholic are inseparable.
My very nature is what I’ve learned from my family about taking care of others, making sure there is always room for one more at the table. The Emmanuel Dining Room is a place where the poor get a great meal, and we serve it with great love and restaurant fashion.

How do you express your faith today? Mass? Prayers?
All the above. But to me, pure religion is in your heart, not on your sleeve. Religion has to emulate Christ. Deeds, not words.

What do you do in your spare time? I like to read. I love history, and I read about poverty, struggles and addictions, so I’m abreast on what’s going on.

What was the most pressing need you first identified?
Shelter for homeless women. A lot of emotionally disturbed people were not getting help. Women were forced into prostitution or had to live in subhuman conditions because they had escaped from domestic disputes. If they had an alcohol problem, they were put in jail. There was no place for women to find refuge.

What’s the most pressing need now?
Mental illness is still here, sadly, and homelessness is just a comfortable word, when it should be a shameful, scandalous word in America, a land of plenty. Mentally challenged people are brushed over. If you saw someone on the street bleeding, you’d call an ambulance. We don’t address the needs of people who are hurting emotionally.

Over the years, many people have asked for the ministry’s secret sauce.
I have been to Milwaukee, Detroit, and Canada. But I would rather show them what we do, encourage them, and support them. The U.S. government had this idea that first get them housing and then address their needs. That doesn’t work because you shove them in a house and pretend, they don’t exist. They’re not getting wraparound services. Many are dealing with alcohol and drugs. You need to really fix their problems.
In the beginning, we worked very hard to find jobs and apartments. Then we noticed that people were coming back. They were not ready to be on their own. And so we created transitional housing, which gave them a year or two where they only paid 30% of their income, and they could prepare for their future and learn basic skills. Some were babies having babies, so they don’t know about hygiene, parenting, housekeeping and cooking. You have to invest in people.

I imagine you get saddened when you see recidivism.
Yes. And I got sad when the government does stupid things. The Ministry of Caring gets 52 percent of its budget from the govern-ment. Sometimes we don’t agree, like the focus on housing. Wonderful. It’s like “How can you be against apple pie?” but when you examine it, it’s a quick fix. You could put everybody in an apartment and you could say America no longer has homeless people, but how long will that last? And so it disturbs me when their priority is not to invest in the individual. They say they’re looking at economics, that it’s better to get them apartments and they’re on their feet. But too often that doesn’t fit, and it makes me sad.

You’ve traveled a lot.
I went to Sudan in 1999, during the civil war. We saw that the need was of course peace. But in the meantime, we created wells delivering safe water. We went back in 2001, rebuilding the country.
I’ve been many times to the Vatican, including a private audience with the Holy Father last September, with the president and former presidents of the Ministry of Caring board.

If a donor offers a new income stream and asks for something new, what would you do?
I would build houses because housing lasts, and I would do it for families, feeding from our transitional program, because I want to make sure people succeed. In transitional housing, they get all these life management skills. The majority succeed because we invested with them, we helped them, and we deal with their problems. Investing in each individual is the essential element for success.

How have you changed?
I’ve gained years, weight and experience. But 44 years of seeing poverty has not made me cynical or depressed. Instead, I see the brightness of so many people who found hope, and that keeps me motivated and keeps me going.

You just turned 72. What has been your greatest accomplishment?
That I persevered for 44 years in Wilmington, survived cancer and am still here to tell the story. The Capuchins are called the Minutemen of the Church, because we go wherever they’re needed.
The Capuchins do good and disappear. That’s our job. I did the maximum good I could do on earth. Hopefully my good works would follow me, with someone else to pick up the banner and continue.
Somehow Providence kept me here. I don’t want to retire. Just die with my sandals on.