by Ryan Elsey
A lot of words come to mind when you think of St. Anthony Foundation: compassion, service, justice, Cold War. Wait … Cold War? While perusing through our archives, I found some interesting information about the inception of St. Anthony Dining Room in the midst of the early days of the Cold War. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. We weren’t formed as a CIA front to train rebels to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Guatemala. Nothing that interesting—but interesting nonetheless.
Back in the 1940s, our founder, Fr. Alfred Boeddeker, was teaching theology at Franciscan Major Seminary in Santa Barbara. While teaching, he was presented with a new challenge: to found a Catholic University in Hankow, China. He soon left Santa Barbara to attend the University of California, Berkeley. There he enrolled in courses covering Chinese history and political science, and studied Chinese, Russian and Japanese languages to prepare for his new mission.
But as Fr. Alfred was preparing himself for China, the nascent Cold War was beginning to rage. Embroiled in a long Civil War, China became one of the first battlegrounds where American and Soviet-backed proxy armies waged war. In 1949 Mao’s Communists finally won and the U.S.-backed Nationalists fled to Taiwan.
With China under the Communist umbrella and totalitarianism setting in, a new Catholic university became out of the question. Still studying Chinese at Berkeley, Fr. Alfred needed a new assignment.
In what became a very serendipitous re-assignment, Fr. Alfred crossed the Bay and became pastor of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. The Church was home to a bread line for a diverse, largely immigrant poor and homeless population.
But Fr. Alfred’s vision extended vastly beyond a mere bread line. He wanted to serve the poor and homeless with dignity. So he almost immediately shut down the line and founded St. Anthony Dining Room in its place. At the Dining Room, everyone could eat a warm meal in a dignified atmosphere. The Clinic, and Employment Program, and other programs soon followed, leading to today’s St. Anthony Foundation, a vast network of services.
So it seems that somewhere in the struggle between East and West, totalitarianism and democracy, communism and capitalism, war and peace, St. Anthony Dining Room emerged because of the chance re-assignment of one Franciscan priest.