How the Catholic Church Saved New York City | Part 3 — The Legacy of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR

From sheltering homeless youth to being the birthplace of Grassroots Films, St. Francis House is the crown jewel of Greenpoint.

“Brooklyn? There’s no way I’m going to Brooklyn!” exclaimed a reluctant Joe Campo to a very persistent Fr. Benedict Groeschel, “Oh come on, Joe, just take a look and tell me what you think….” A few days later, in early 1990, Campo and Fr. Benedict arrived at a small house, one of the oldest in Greenpoint. And a new chapter in the history of the little house was about to begin.

But the story begins in a different town, in a different county some 30 years earlier. The 27-year-old newly ordained, Fr. Benedict, was tasked to be the Chaplain for Children’s Village, a facility for the care of emotionally disturbed children. Here he encountered a harsh reality of the time. At 16, a resident child would be released back to the streets and forced to fend for themselves.

And in late 1966, there were two cousins, Bobby and Jimmy, slated for release on their 16th Birthday. The young Fr. Benedict, unwilling to see them return to the streets, decided to turn his empathy into action. As the boys were from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, he went there to find them a place to live.

With the help from the small Polish parish of St. Cyril and Methodius, he acquired a small, run-down house dubbed ‘The St. Francis Club.’ It was there that the boys would find their new home, and the St. Francis House was born.

But there was a storm brewing.

Greenpoint, also known as ‘Little Poland,’ was one of the most productive neighborhoods in New York City in the early 21st century. It produced the USS Monitor, The New Republic (the largest wooden ship ever built), and had over 50 Oil refineries. It was even home to the ubiquitous Eberhard Faber pencil company. But empires crumble, and in the late 1960s, amid a stark decline in industry, social unrest, and the emergence of devastating crime waves, Greenpoint, along with all of Brooklyn, slowly descended into hell.

Poverty, gang violence, and rampant drug use spread like wildfire throughout the borough ripping apart communities and families as the lack of work tore apart the fabric of the once-proud community built on the blood and sweat of immigrants. A sharp rise of broken homes gave way to a growing population of homeless youth, often drug-addicted and desperate, turning to any means necessary to survive.

Before long, the St. Francis House was filled to capacity. It provided a Christ-centered safe haven. And offered a structured environment in which its young residents could find purpose, find hope, and promise.

Over the next two decades, hundreds of young men found their way, thanks to the little house initially founded by a young priest to help two 16-year-old boys.

When Joe Campo arrived in 1990 and took over running the home, another chapter would begin. He became ‘Grandpa’ to all the residents, counseling, encouraging, and becoming the rock wall between what plagued the streets and the boys under his watch. Driving away drug dealers just beyond the doors, organizing the house to be a true home with evening dinner and prayer, and always being present to listen and counsel.

After about 15 years of being a father to the fatherless, a radical idea came to be. Realizing that many of the boys couldn’t find work and lacked skills, Campo had a vision; to make a movie about the St. Francis House. A photographer by trade, he gave jobs to each of the residents as grips and cameramen and would teach them about production. And they went on to create what would be the first film produced by what would become Grassroots Films.

Since then, the film company has produced multiple award-winning movies, including The Human Experience, Fishers of Men, Outcasts, and a wide variety of commercials and short films.

The St. Francis house is a house of hope empowering those who pass through its doors to achieve lives of meaning and purpose. But it’s taken on new roles over the years, covering college tuitions, supporting families in need, and paying for the funerals of those who didn’t make it out. It’s become a bulwark in a raging storm whose winds are poverty and despair.

Despite the success of his film career, Joe is still there, living each day to serve the boys that lack the presence of a father in their lives and guide them to discover their greatness.

Please keep St. Francis House in your prayers, and for information on how you can help keep the mission going, visit http://www.stfrancishousebrooklyn.com/.

Subscribe to read more stories!

Jeffrey Bruno is an award winning photojournalist and creative director specializing in the mission and beauty of the Catholic Church around the globe.