Sister Barbara Joseph
Diocese of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
While volunteering with the Hot Dogs for Homeless program in Oklahoma City, Sister Barbara Joseph Foley, CST, learned of the great poverty the city’s homeless population experienced. She saw their hunger was for more than food – it was also for dignity.
That recognition inspired her to start Sister BJ’s Pantry in 2006. Since that time, she has been ministering to men, women, and children by addressing more than their hunger for food.
Over 20,000 people will pass through the pantry each year. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week, Sister BJ and her volunteers serve roughly 450 people who are among our most marginalized. Many have suffered degradation through their lifestyle or experiences with community or family. Pantry patrons include people who are homeless, struggling with mental illness, addiction, poverty or loneliness.
Sister BJ greets visitors with a friendly face and a cup of coffee, homemade pastries or cookies, and sack lunches to be enjoyed in a beautiful garden away from the noise and chaos that is familiar to them. She joyfully sets an example for Catholic school and religious education children who decorate the lunch bags with uplifting pictures and sayings. She has grown to know the regular patrons and even made funeral arrangements for one who had no other family.
Since its inception, the pantry has expanded its services to address a variety of basic needs. Services include a foot clinic, a clothing room, a washer and dryer, a food bank, and an emergency vehicle that is used to visit the homeless in extreme hot and cold weather and to offer assistance to people on the streets who find themselves in dangerous situations.
Sister BJ’s Pantry is not a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. It is a place where, without the need to provide identification, patrons are met with a listening ear, open arms and open heart as they visit a place of peace and rest. The real ministry lies in the way Sister BJ meets the patrons’ spiritual need for acceptance and human dignity.
The pantry’s impact is widespread. By enlisting an extensive network of volunteers, donors and visitors from all walks of life from all around the country, Sister BJ is raising awareness about homelessness and contributing to the growth of the Catholic faith in her community through her example of service to others.
The Superior of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese, Sister Barbara Joseph has won numerous state and local civic awards and honors since 2006, including Catholic Charities Organization of the Year and Person of the Year (University of Notre Dame, Oklahoma City Club). She also received commendations by the mayor and governor.
Modeled after the Corporal Works of Mercy, Sister BJ’s pantry gives Sister Barbara Joseph a chance to bring joy to the patrons in an otherwise dark world. It’s not about the food, the clothing or the shelter, she says, but about being present to the patrons when they are there.