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by Chyrisse Smith, Middle School Administrative Assistant

This is a two-part blog article including reflections by Mount de Sales administrative assistant Chyrisse Smith. Chyrisse assisted in chaperoning the Mount de Sales Academy mission trip to the St. Francis Inn this school year and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Macon, Georgia on April 27, 2024. 

Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received – only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.” – St. Francis of Assisi

Reflections on the St. Francis Inn

After a flight from Middle Georgia Regional Airport, a train ride out of Baltimore, and a minivan ride with Br. Angel, we arrived at the St. Francis Inn. The day was sunshiny, with a temperature high of 10 degrees. With snow on the ground and slippery steps, we walked up the stairs of the apartment building, relaxed, and changed into some comfy clothes. We ordered pizza for dinner and began our first reflection evening session.

St. Francis Inn opened its dining room doors on December 16, 1979. The Inn was founded that same year by three Franciscan friars, Roderic Petrie, Emmet Murphy and Anthony Struzynski. They came to Philadelphia to start a ministry that took care of the poor in the community and they quickly saw that the neighborhood didn’t need another hand out but a shoulder to lean on. They saw the people as their brothers and sisters. That idea of community is why the soup kitchen is a dining room, where people are called guests and are seated at a table and served a meal by a waiter, like at a restaurant. The hospitality is unreal, in ways that you don’t even see in an Applebee’s. No one is above one another, even the volunteers and staff all participate in being with the people and meeting them where they are. Mount De Sales Academy has been going to the Inn for mission trips for some years now. Each year, our school takes 8-10 students with 2 staff/faculty chaperones. The group stays for about a week and serves breakfast and dinner. The Inn is a Franscian, Eucharistic community that is inspired by the life lived by St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. This ministry provides daily needs like meals, essentials like toiletry items, haircuts, clothing, job search, and social work assistance. 

The St. Francis Inn is located in the Kensington neighborhood, an area that has been riddled with homelessness. The apartment we stayed in is located in the Kensington neighborhood, across the street from the Inn. Volunteers who come to serve at the Inn stay in the apartment, which is above the Inn’s thrift store, Marie’s Closet, for the needs of the community. Volunteers come from all over the country and many different walks of life, from schools, churches, organizations or individuals who want to serve. I grew up in Chicago, seeing how life circumstances affect people’s lives. But I’ve never seen it right out of my living room window. The Inn stands as a pillar of hope and support on the corner of Kensington and E. Hagert. The building doesn’t look like much from the outside—but man, is it life-giving on the inside.

The day begins with Mass and ends with prayer. You need this focus to do the work. Mass sets the tone for the day and the heart of the Inn: service to the community. There are so many tasks required to run the soup kitchen, from cleaning dishes to prepping meals to running errands—and so much more in between that you’d have to see to believe. The students were able to meet these needs and more, including sorting clothes in the thrift store, serving breakfast and dinner, and cleaning up debris of all kinds on the street.

The best part was watching students sit down with the guests at dinner and talk to them. What a difference a simple “Hello” and “What’s your name?” can make! I’ve known how important this conversation is, because I grew up serving in women’s and homeless shelters, but it was priceless to see this generation of young people—high school juniors and seniors—honor a person’s identity for a few moments. Some of the guests here have a place to sleep, but it might be in an airport. Others sleep outside, because a shelter, home or any kind of structure with walls are confining and restricting. 

Society tends to forget that people who are homeless are humans, too. As Christians, it’s important that we learn to carry each other’s burdens by taking up one another’s crosses. We are all brothers and sisters, we have value and so does anyone else who is suffering or in pain in ways we can’t imagine. But that’s what empathy is for and that goes a long way for someone in need of care and love. At the Inn, your dignity is safe, and you are respected. When you come for a plate of food, you are served a hot meal, complete with condiments and dessert. On the way out, you are welcome to an item from the giveaway table, which may be a toiletry bag with some fruit on the side, boxes of cereal, or a variety of desserts. It depends on what people have donated to the Inn.

I had the pleasure of serving at the takeaway table for guests every night with another volunteer or one of our students. The table was stocked each night with toiletry kits, fruits, cereal, essentials of any kind, or any donations that needed to be given out. My goal was to send guests off into the night with some warmth and a smile. Some of them wanted to chat, and others didn’t. Those who chatted needed a listening ear, and I was happy to give it to them. The silent ones would look at me with a slight gleam in their eyes, and I would smile back and show them kindness in the silence. I prayed with people, hugged and embraced them, and held their hand letting them know that it would all be okay. I didn’t want the guests to leave without feeling loved, so I made interactions personal through the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Our days ended with a home-cooked meal by Fr. Casey. We gathered around the table and talked about our day. This was a time for us, separate from the guests, to have some rest and feed our souls from a day’s work. Father used whatever food items he found in the soup kitchen’s fridge to cook for us. One night, we had spaghetti and another night, pork chops. It varied and it was yummy and filling. Then, we sat down in the living room and reflected on what we saw that day, our hopes, and the lessons we learned. The eight students would sit for a moment and ponder what to say. Then, one would speak up and clear the air to share things that felt heavy or burdensome. Collectively, the feeling was that it was good to be there to volunteer.

At the beginning of the week, I could tell the students were holding back some of their fears and hopes—which is understandable, because they were in uncharted waters. By the end of the week, their reflections expressed the depth of the good they were doing. They knew guests by name and what their likes and dislikes were. They knew who the workers and volunteers were and how they ran the Inn. They saw the fragility of the people but also their strength—the priests, friars, staff, and volunteers as well. I could see their expressions change from, “I’m just here because this is a good opportunity” to, “I can’t believe I got to be part of this mission, and I don’t want to leave.”

Youth need community, too. They also need someone to believe in them, to treat them like they matter. That need was their common ground. It was why they didn’t want to leave—because they saw a piece of themselves in the guests, volunteers, and workers. They saw a chance to serve and be someone who could care for the people around them and grow a little. And they did grow. Each of them warmed up to the idea of service, and it was so fun to watch that transition happen.

After a few nights of board games and a visit to see the Liberty Bell, it was time to go home. By this point, the snow and ice had melted, and the sun was shining bright after some days of dreary weather. At Mass that morning, Fr. Michael sent us off with a blessing and Taize cross necklaces to wear to remember our trip. We snapped a group photo and were off, back to Macon after a minivan, train, and airplane ride home.

I don’t know about you, but every time I serve, it changes me. I grow closer to God. I find a deeper capacity for mercy, grace, and love. More than that, I have a depth of empathy that I didn’t know existed. It grows deeper and deeper each time. I never try to question why, but I know it is the Holy Spirit that makes all this possible. For me, that’s what matters: the comfort and love I give to my brothers and sisters.

St. Francis Inn has never closed its doors since it served its first plate of food. Its founders knew the neighborhood needed a safe haven and warm meal for people who just needed an act of kindness—no faith speak or rehab, just an outstretched arm of mercy. They have provided that act of kindness well and continue to be a beacon of hope, light, and love. Sometimes, we all need a place to sit and be quiet, away from all the noises of the world. I saw that desire in many of the guests, and it touched my soul to know that they were being given that place for 30 minutes.

On a given night, the St. Francis Inn might serve over 200 people, and each one may need something different to feed their soul. The Inn gives it to them in the most humble and beautiful way. I welcome you to go and experience the life-changing ways of the Inn that our students got to experience. It is worth the trip; I promise you, there will be no regrets. Just ask one of the students. They will tell you how life-giving that week was.

Even on the darkest days, the stars still shine from the Inn. The people who sleep among those stars can know that Heaven is shining upon them, radiating the light of goodness that their spirit needs.

My Catholic Faith

Growing up, I always craved more. Whether it was more nature, knowledge, reading or emotions, I needed to feel something in its depth. It began at four years old, learning how to play with schoolyard friends and what manners meant. I was beginning life, becoming a more fully formed human being, with core memories developing like photographs in my head.

The thing I craved most of all was in the heart space. I couldn’t live a day without some kind of love for others or myself. I wasn’t good at it, but I learned how to manage by sustaining myself and using coping skills. I grew up having to teach myself these skills very early on.

It all started when I was in the womb, feeling, listening, and sustaining. There was God, and where He was, there was faith. Because of this life, I always felt that the church was where you went to be in a safe, sacred space. It was a church in Chicago, bought from the Archdiocese of Chicago by a committee and Reverend Meeks, a Baptist pastor who wanted to be in the thick of it all in one of the hard-hit neighborhoods of Chicago: Pullman. It was a very precarious neighborhood, and the community itself was unsafe. But he had a mission, and so did a small group of young people in their 30s and 40s, including my mom. With a young daughter strapped to her side, she went to work, helping the community with whatever they needed—not a handout but a hand to hold.

It was evangelism at its finest: talking to a person and meeting them where they were. And I got to see a lot of it first hand. You know a core memory when it stays with you, when you can still hear the sound of high heels clicking on the marble floor of the Sunday school building and feel the warm sun pass through the stained glass windows. Rev. Meeks worked with Bishop Patrick to bring some happiness into the neighborhood. They did just that, with support and help from the community, parishioners and perseverance.

During any difficult time in my life, I’ve always grown closer to God. I’ve always known He would be the one to save me and keep me safe. Some days, my faith has been as small as the flicker of a candle in the darkness. Other days, it has been as big as a leaf covering my head in a rainstorm. Either way, He has been my light and comfort.

When I really needed to be in His presence as a child, I went outside, sat among the trees, and listened to the wind. God spoke to me through nature, by way of bird songs, wind, and rainy days. It’s like new life is breathed into my lungs each time I step outdoors. I spent many hours a day working in the yard and gardens with my grandmother, whom I called “Mama.” We would be outside from sunup to sundown.

You want to talk about a woman of God, look no further than Mama. She was a special woman who possessed this way of caring for others that I never saw in anyone else. She provided diapers and coats for the kids in her neighborhood in Chicago and took care of her family, providing a hot meal every night for her three daughters while taking care of the community. She worked at the school across the street from her home. When she learned of the needs of the families there, she’d ask for donations or buy items on her own and hand-deliver them.

Almost every day, she spent time in her garden, tending to her white peonies. She loved the Lord, and she loved what He provided for her—to be one with Him and to do what He asked of her. I feel nature is one the closest places to Heaven you’ll get here on earth. He longs for us to find Him there. He found Mama and me there often.

I mention some of these core memories because they are part of the depth of my being and why I became a Catholic. They are the earliest memories of the presence of God in my life, and there are so many more stories. I’ll save them for a porch sit.

In college, I wrote a paper on Jesus for religion class. I went into the attic of the library on campus, where I read through probably 20 books while drinking a caramel vanilla latte by the moonlight and the lamps. The professor gave me an A+ with one bibliography mistake. In his notes, he said it was the best research paper he’d ever read—had I ever considered being a theologian or in ministry?

It all makes sense now: the girl who took the high school religion courses by choice, who blessed her food before school lunches while people stared. It was uncool to my peers to love and show your love for Jesus. But I didn’t care. I had a higher calling—a deeper understanding of the world around me.

On July 11, 2022, I moved to Macon to work at Mount de Sales. It was a Godsend, because I’d been praying to Him for a life change. Well, He delivered, and within three weeks, I was moving my entire life to Macon from Athens, GA, my home of 28 years. I knew from the jump that moving to Macon was not just about the job. God had another plan, and it was simple: “You don’t have roots yet, but we will begin to plant them here.” It was the start of the life He was curating for me.

I quickly became friends with Martha Barrett, and she showed me what a beautiful soul of God looks like. I knew I was in the right place, because she had converted from Baptist Christianity to Catholicism when she married her husband. I knew I’d found a lifelong friend.

Next, Father Casey invited me to Easter Triduum 2023 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, where he was the priest at the time. I was intrigued by this three-day remembrance celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. I’d never heard of such a thing before—dedicating three whole days to Jesus. I went to the church that Thursday evening and was awestruck.

It was my first time being inside a Catholic church. The first thing you see is Jesus, dying on the cross. The crucifix is there in plain sight, and you can’t look away. On the altar are Mary and Joseph, on either side of Jesus, as if they are protecting their son and the people of the Church. Above it all is the Holy Spirit dove in stained glass. I couldn’t stop staring at it all.

I could go into details about each day of the Triduum and unpack it all for you. But I described it to friends in this way: I went to church to witness the last supper and washing of the disciples’ feet. Then, we had a funeral for Jesus, and His body lay in repose in the parish hall. The next day, there was silence and kissing the cross to pay my respects. Saturday, we were outside and then inside in the dark, with candles and a long song. I was overwhelmed, and Hallelujah! Christ has risen. We had a jubilee! Easter Sunday was like normal again, but with fluffy colorful dresses and egg hunts.

On Easter Monday, I was spent. I needed a badge or something to say “She participated in Triduum!” But here is what I knew: I wanted to be a Catholic from that first day, that first time stepping into the church. I can’t explain it, but I was overcome with joy by being in the presence of such faith and tradition. I wanted—no, I needed—more of it. It was a life-changing, life-giving day. And nothing has been the same since.

I started RCIA/OCIA on September 9, 2023. I was the only candidate who showed up, and I was surrounded by a table of Catholics eager to see who this girl was. I had just gotten my Invisalign that day and talked with a lisp. They thought something was wrong with me, and I told them, which broke the ice. I came prepared with 67 questions, and we got down to business.

Gymee and JoJo wanted to know me more, so we exchanged numbers. Both women became my sponsors, my godparents. Everyone else seemed to appreciate my rawness, my realness, my willingness to learn, or how I glowed. From that day on, they became my friends. During the process, we all went through life’s ups and downs, and we stayed connected through the sessions. Some days were tougher than others, and we would just need each other’s company.

When you are converting to Catholicism, in some ways, it’s like being screened by the government. You have to have check-ins with the priest, show paperwork if you’ve been baptized (that was a mess for me, but we got it done!), take adult faith formation classes, check in with your sponsors, and, above all, make your first Confession.

What a hard thing for me to do! I was embarrassed and almost decided I didn’t want to be a Catholic, because the thought of talking to man and not God about my sins was nauseating. The day came, and it just so happened to be the same day the youth had Adoration and Confession, too. I told my sponsors that if a kid could do it, so could I! I went into the Confessional, sat in front of the priest, and said, “What do I say, like, everything?”

He said, “Say whatever you want to.” 

I spilled my guts on three items that I knew were sinful and said, “How’s that?”

The priest said, “Pretty good.”

Then, I had to say an Act of Contrition. I had no clue what that was, so I prayed the first words that came to me through the Holy Spirit and looked up through one eye. The priest nodded “OK.” He laid his hands over me and blessed me.

I immediately felt my sins wash away. It felt like clouds lifting and storms moving on. I cried—oh, did I cry. I told the priest “thank you” and walked out to kids looking at my teary face. I sucked up my ugly cry so they didn’t think Confession was a bad or scary thing and went to kneel and pray. For 20 minutes, I listened and talked to God. He told me that I was where I was supposed to be in my faith and affirmed my worth. I wholeheartedly knew I was a child, the daughter, of God. I left the church knowing that though this road has been long, there is more to come, with the goodness and grace of God by my side.

My Confirmation Day

April 27, 2024 was one of the most peaceful mornings I’ve ever had. The skies were gray and cloudy, but I could feel the warmth of the sun shining on me. It was the morning of my Confirmation, and I was in a state of complete contentment. Leading up to this day, the devil tried to take my joy and make me feel like a failure, ugly and alone. I fell for it a couple of times throughout the week but would snap out of it when I realized that he only tries to take you the closer you grow to God. He does not like to compete, and truth be told, by the 27th, there was no competition. God was waiting for me at the finish line, and the marathon was already won.

I put on the white dress that Eunice custom-made for me, pearl earrings I borrowed from Ashley, a headpiece that Melanie gifted to me, my mom’s wedding band, Mama’s 100-plus-year-old ring, and Papa’s wedding ring. I made sure to wear my promise ring, a band I started to wear when I made the final public decision to become Catholic. That band means that I belong to God and His love. When I get married, I will wear it around my neck with my crucifix and Mary Magdalene medal. 

At around 11 a.m., the Confirmation Mass began. It was like every other Mass—simple and lovely. The priest, Father Casey, laid his hands above my head. Then, it was time to say the Creed. I had a piece of paper to read off of in case I stumbled through my words—and I did. When I professed my commitment to the Church, I looked up and saw almost all the people who loved me in one place. (There were some who couldn’t be there but sent their love.) I was floored. I choked up and had to compose myself. 

Next, I was blessed with the holy oil. The smell was soft yet invigorating. I could smell it for the rest of the day, and I didn’t want to wash my face that evening.

Finally came the moment I had been waiting for: the Eucharist. For over a year, I had been watching everyone else accept it. The Eucharist is the pinnacle of the Mass. The presence of the Holy Spirit is there, waiting for you. Every Sunday, I find myself wanting to duck into the church, go unnoticed, and make my way to the pew to be in solitude with the Lord and listen to the Holy Spirit. It’s an opportunity like no other. So, when it came time for me to take communion for the first time as a Catholic, I knew it embodied so much more than what you usually hear about. I went back to the pew, knelt down, and talked with God. I was overflowing with joy and my soul felt at peace. To accept the body and the blood of Christ is a moment I will never forget. It’s a divine gift, privilege and honor.

All this time, all I ever needed was there for me. I just needed to find it. As I write this, I am tearing up, because it is a moment I can’t put into words. It’s a personal moment, one that words don’t do justice to. The day was beautiful, and everyone kept saying it to me as I hugged and kissed them after Mass. And it was a gloriously, beautifully blessed day. From my sponsors JoJo and Gymee being by my side as I brought the gifts to the altar to my mom telling people to “take care of my daughter—she is yours now” to brunch in the backyard surrounded by loved ones (including ladybugs and sweetpea). There are so many people I want to thank, even loved ones who have passed from this world. I know they know I love them and wouldn’t be here without them.

Becoming a Catholic woman has not changed the way I see the world; it has deepened my perspective on all things in this world. That craving for more that I have always had has been fulfilled and will continue to be fulfilled. Now, I don’t see an end—only a beginning. Every day, there is something new to learn and look into. I see marriage and having a family in a new way, wanting to build my life on a foundation that has stood the test of time for over 2,000 years. As someone who considers herself a black sheep, I’m good and content with being a Catholic, because If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. It is so true and raw. I will always be the “little light” that my mom has always told me to be in this life.

God is my pillar, Jesus is my cornerstone, and the Holy Spirit is my lighthouse.