Spiritual leader hopes to open doors to serving, caring
ALPENA — Doors long closed to the community could reopen in welcome as Alpena’s Catholic community redefines its efforts to feed, clothe, and house their brothers and sisters in need.
Father Tyler Bischoff, one of two clergy overseeing Alpena’s All Saints Catholic Parish, on Thursday offered a tour of a building he hopes will someday house people desperate to get in from the cold.
The building, once a Catholic grade school, now serves as home for the Friendship Room — referred to by many as the “soup kitchen” — where volunteers in the one-time school’s kitchen turn donated food into tasty meals for anyone who wants them, six days a week.
The rest of the building houses other donated items, from toys lining a downstairs hallway to shoes, pants, belts, and other clothing items upstairs, neatly separated in classrooms that once held children learning lessons.
An outside organization makes sure anyone who needs the items gets them, Bischoff said, walking past underwear of all sizes, sorted into bins in the upstairs hallway.
The building fulfills a mission now, but he has grander visions. Others have caught his enthusiasm, putting their heads together to dream up ways the old school and the adjacent St. Bernard Catholic Church could become not just buildings but a ministry center, known by the town as a place of refuge and help, Bischoff said.
The church building has been closed for some time, ever since the city’s four Catholic churches combined to form the All Saints parish when the city’s population fell and its church-going Catholics with it.
St. Mary Catholic Church, on 2nd Avenue north of the Thunder Bay River, remains unlocked all day, every day, serving as home to a round-the-clock prayer vigil peopled by parish members who sign up to spend shifts praying, even in the middle of the night.
The parish lacks the volunteer power for something similar at St. Bernard, and its doors mostly remain locked, hiding an ornate and sedate sanctuary with tall pillars, soaring ceiling, and abundant peace.
He hopes the parish can open the church building to the community more, hosting events there and making the public feel welcome, Bischoff said.
He envisions events like one he experienced while living in Rome, when clergy carried lit candles through a darkened city, handing out other candles and inviting passers-by to come to the church to pray.
“That hasn’t been done in Alpena before,” Bischoff said, chuckling.
Many in Alpena know the St. Bernard building not for its connection to spiritual care but as “that closed church on Chisholm,” he said.
He wants the church and its grand spires to be a beacon in the community, welcoming all to come — especially those who need extra help.
Right now, he said, the most pressing need in Alpena is for emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, especially for those who may have to wait days to get into Sunrise Mission, a hotel, or other lodging but who need shelter now, immediately, when nights are cold and bodies need comfort.
Representatives of local social service agencies, police, emergency medical responders, and others, including Bischoff, met in Alpena last week, sharing an urgent hope of creating better collaboration to get people who need shelter into a warm place as quickly as possible.
Bischoff thinks the old school building could be that place, its classrooms and neatly painted walls ready to receive and welcome, if concerned heads can continue their push to make things better, not later but soon.
The building would need a new roof, and laundry facilities, and people willing to do the work to turn it into an emergency shelter. But, that’s doable, Bischoff said.
He has met, once, with representatives of groups that use the building already and organizations representing other Catholic endeavors, like Catholic Human Services and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, to talk about transforming the school and church buildings into the Center of Catholic Charity for All Saints Parish — not drastically changing what happens there but shifting the way people inside and outside the parish think about helping others.
On Thursday, people coming for a meal started drifting into the school building well before the appointed dinner time, chatting, standing quietly, being together.
Taking care of others can’t end with filling their stomachs and clothing their bodies, Bischoff said, saying the Friendship Room was not named on a whim.
“The biggest need is for people to know they’re not alone,” Bischoff said.
The Center for Catholic Charity of his vision — not really bigger, not much different, but more intentional, more about meeting needs with purpose and clarity — is like a triage center, he said, describing a place where churches understand that the big hurts of life require more than just a checkup and a bandaid.
The school and the empty church could, with the eager hands of those ready to serve others, be, simply but beautifully, the place “where all the wounded come,” he said, eyes gleaming. “And you can help them.”