Bert W. Page 42
Fr. Bert Womack was vicar of St. Martha’s, a small Episcopal parish in Westminster, when diocesan leaders asked him to devise a plan for broadening the diocesan outreach program beyond Capitol Hill. He did.
Then they asked him if he and Fr. Russell Nakata, a canon at St. John’s cathedral, would form a search committee to find a director for this new Episcopal Pastoral Care Center, to be housed in the diocesan offices. They did.
“We realized the diocese really didn’t have the money to do what they wanted to do,” said Womack. “So they asked me if I would do it.”
Womack prayerfully weighed this request, and shared it with his parishioners at St. Martha’s. “The people at St. Martha’s said, ‘If the diocese can’t do it, we’ll do it.’ So the St. Francis Center didn’t begin with a 5-year plan or anything like that. It began with a group of people in Westminster willing to put up the money to do it,” Womack said.
This was in 1979. By 1983, the Pastoral Care Center had outgrown its original mission to feed hungry families, and was ready to move into its own building and begin serving a different, more challenging population: the homeless. It opened its doors in August, 1983, and Womack became the first executive director of the newly christened St. Francis Center.
“I think we had two showers in that first building, at 21st and Lawrence, one that worked some of the time, and a couple of commodes,” he recalled. “At first, we were seeing about 60 folks a day.”
A year later, the center moved to its current location. Womack vividly remembers the uproar that move caused among some residents not pleased to have a homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
“The day we dedicated the building, there were about 500 Episcopalians there, including about 50 clergy,” he said. Some developers and a few angry residents showed up and picketed. Then two other neighborhood groups showed up and picketed the picketers. Then the folks we served began to show up, and they were just angry.”
Worried about the volatility of the situation, Womack sent a guitarist out to the street to play calming music. “I can still see Ann B. Davis and the president of Mountain Belle standing in the middle of the street, calming the crowd,” he said.
For the next 10 years, Womack oversaw the day-to-day activities at St. Francis Center. They were, he says, “heady times.” There were “potty parties,” thrown by the bishop’s wife, at which guests were asked to bring toilet paper and soap. There were truckloads of used clothing sent down from parishes in Aspen and Vail. There was an unprecedented outpouring of support from churches all across the diocese.
“I’ll never forget, when we started looking around for someone to take care of this population, and the Lord kept telling us we were the ones to do it,” he said. “Then we began to argue with the Lord that we really didn’t have the funds to do it. But the Lord provided us the funds – and continues to do that in one form or another.”
By the time he retired, the center was serving about 400 guests per day. He’s astounded at what has happened in the 20 years since.
“Today, they’re doing things we only dreamed about,” he said. “It’s staggering to me. But I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
He’s grateful not only to the people who volunteer and fund and advocate on behalf of the St. Francis Center. He’s also grateful to the people who have found shelter there. “The church needs to be reminded constantly that the poor will always be with us, to provide us an opportunity to serve them,” he said. “The St. Francis Center has become an icon of that. It’s had more of an effect on the life of our church than on the people we serve. Because people can’t ignore it.”
Reprinted from “Reaching Great Heights from Deep Roots” 2013 – Rebecca Jones